Around 3 a.m. on a Saturday this May, I took the wheel from my friend Jordan and started driving across the Iowa plains. The sky above us was black and potent, and my windshield dappled with mist. Hidden clouds snuffed out the stars. Headlights sometimes loomed over gentle hills, each pair cresting like a sunrise, but they came more sparsely the more I drove, and mostly I saw darkness.
Before long, Jordan was asleep in the passenger seat. The night seemed soft but heavy; it embraced the car like a blanket pulled over a child’s head. Yet it also felt open, endless, its unadulterated blackness stretching as far as I could see and farther still past that.
Every few miles, I passed a bit of road construction that pierced my calm cocoon. Orange cones would funnel me past the shoulder of the road, to an area that looked like a pit stop and shook it like a rickety washing machine before setting me free on the open highway once more. It went on like that for a while: smooth highway and short detour, open stretch and cordoned side, peaceful flow and abrupt shift, until it took on its own sort of rolling rhythm and just became the Iowa drive.
I heard my engine humming faintly and, louder, the sound from my speakers: podcasts of WNYC’s Radiolab, spacey, philosophical, and grand, perfect for the setting and perfect for my mood. I caught every word, but they felt more atmospheric than present, the scenery in my mind instead of the dialogue.
Mostly, I felt alone, with nothing to do but think, and drive. It was exactly what I wanted and what I felt I needed.
This was my first vacation after six months in a new office job. I had worked in advertising for eight months before that, mixed an Italian restaurant with a book publishing internship before that, and gone through one of those increasingly common bouts of post-collegiate unemployment before that. It was while working at the restaurant that I took my first big road trip with Jordan. We left Chicago and followed the old Highway 61 down south, through St. Louis and Memphis and New Orleans, then came back up through Nashville and Louisville. We explored the cities and embraced the music, drove fast and stopped wherever, and came back ready to share our stories and make some more.
That trip felt right at the time: we left on my 23rd birthday, and I thought of it as a new beginning, a big adventure that would keep going and lead me into adulthood. This time, though, I wasn’t looking for a beginning; I was looking for a break—from the burdens of work, from the stress of the present, from the bustle of my life. So I called my road buddy and planned a long drive west.
I was a college junior walking languidly through Cambridge, Mass., on a crisp November day when I decided that a 40-hour-a-week desk job might not be so bad—might even be something I would want. And it was a video game that got me to that point.
My roommate and I had left our dorm in a weird mood that day, both excited and wistful, and acutely aware of how transitory everything felt. As we strolled away from the Charles River, in no particular hurry to get to class, we started talking about Super Mario Galaxy. We thought it seemed cool, and we wanted to get home and spend a few hours playing it, the way we had with dozens of video games when we were younger. That’s all, really.
But as we talked about the games we used to play, I started to realize that my free time felt different back then—more contained, more cohesive, more leisurely. I could come home from middle school and let a sprawling game like Ocarina of Time envelop my life. It wasn’t just the excitement of each accomplishment I loved, but the way every event was a revelation that drove me and the story onward. Each night I played that game, I discovered another aspect of the polygonal world and collected another piece of the epic fantasy tale, and each morning I’d get on a bus full of giddy chatter and hyper questions: “How’d you beat the water temple?” and “Where’d you get the hover boots?” and “How cool was that scene with the Seven Sages?” My thoughts didn’t go much beyond that—I was 11, after all—but I knew that there was always something new and exciting to do, and that as much as I didn’t want the game to end, I couldn’t wait to beat it. Now, though, I began to see something else: my young life had a structure to order my free time, a steady pole opposite the school day.
Because at this point in college, any structure I had seemed to have collapsed, and the smooth cyclical march between schoolwork and play felt more like a lurching, interminable procession. As I grew older and my interests expanded, I watched an immense, interconnected world grow up alongside me, and it shaped a dramatically different mental landscape. It’s not that other things didn’t contribute—my friends, my classes, my own maturation—but that everything in this world was suddenly amplified.
And in my room on the Charles, I had access to it all. It might start with something simple—a friend’s blog, or the Wikipedia page for a movie I wanted to see. Or, more often, I’d open them both in separate tabs, while downloading a new album and listening to another already in my iTunes; to not multitask, at this point, was to waste time. My friend might talk about a talked-about movie like Juno, and I’d want to read about the background, and the plot, and then Ellen Page, because who is this girl and where did she come from? And Ivan Reitman I half-recognize, so I click on his name and yup, his dad is the guy who made Ghostbusters, and what was the plot of that again? And wasn’t Bill Murray great? And he’s a Chicagoan and a Cubs fan like me, so I flip over to a Cubs blog to check the offseason chatter and read hundreds of fervent comments, and what’s this trade rumor? Brian Roberts? Baseball Reference has his stats, and John Sickels has write-ups on every prospect in the deal, and I wonder if FJM’s posted a line by line takedown of awful baseball writing recently? Or if Joe Posnanski’s got another three thousand words of great baseball writing up? Regardless, Michael Cera was in Juno and now I feel like watching Arrested Development but dwoop! there’s a gchat asking what’s up or linking me to something I’ve gotta read, and an email with a new video I’ve gotta see, and I know I do, because we’ll all talk and email and gchat about it soon enough, but I still feel like checking the news and David Brooks mentions William James so I pull up that essay I like, “oh not much how bout you?”, and oh hey, that album finished downloading, and my mind gets distant while so much is present, and—well, you get the idea, and probably did before I started.
This isn’t to say that everything became a series of trivial distractions; it was more like an overlapping jumble of fractals, each one as full and bottomless as the one before. I picked through them like a magpie while obsessing like a maven. That album in my headphones became a catalog of early stuff and a library of influences. And I wasn’t even the kind who, in a different time, would have spent his days in a record store: there were always others who knew more, or at least they blogged like they did. About music and so much else.
I wanted to keep up, but I needed a way to get a handle on my relentless, fragmented days. And as much as I loved my classes, they seemed to get in the way of doing that. School work was another persistent presence in my mind, tugging at it while the rest swirled through, and I could never get away from the demands of papers and assignments for long. I felt stuck in the manic present, and I wanted to restore a sense of cohesion to my days and progress to my life, even if it was only partial.
“You know what?” I finally told my roommate. “A full-time job might be nice.” You get out of work and you’re done, I figured. It would be more like the days of middle school and video games, with a structure for my work, a way to contain my free time, and a unified experience of my day.
I was wrong, of course. But I couldn’t have known that at the time.
The west and the wilderness, two of the great beacons in the American imagination, have always flashed promises of possibility and escape, and they did for me this spring. I felt weighted down by the burdens of work, tossed around by everyone and everything I was connected to, overcome by the flood of stuff washing over me. As Jordan and I charted a path across the west, I imagined that I’d drift through the Great Plains like Huck on the Mighty Miss, or bob to Kerouac’s syncopated rhythm of ecstasy and emptiness, or maybe settle into the muted contentment of a Hollywood cowboy. Mostly I just imagined calm and quiet.
We crossed into Nebraska around 5:30 a.m., seven hours or so after leaving Chicago. The sun rose slowly over the verdant spring farmland, and the clouds glowed white against a smeared pink and blue sky. There’s a Georgia O’Keefe painting at the Art Institute that you can’t miss—it’s called “Sky Above Clouds IV,” the Internet is telling me now—and I thought of it then, even though I hadn’t seen it in a while. But I mainly tried to remain in the hazy present, where my mind had as much space as the open road and my thoughts sank into the soft, silent land around it.
This was before I started checking emails on my phone, and before I started documenting everything in a tweet journal. I wanted to disconnect from the endless chatter of my present and replace it with something more timeless and whole, like what I found in the games of my boyhood and the picaresque stories on my bookshelf. Or at least what I found at the McDonald’s 70 miles west of Omaha, in a farm town called Seward.
It was sometime after 6 when we pulled into a parking lot full of beat-up trucks and went inside to order coffee and breakfast. While we waited, I watched the eight sunburned men at the corner table. Empty wrappers and Styrofoam cups piled around them, but as they sat back and mumbled half-chewed sentences, they seemed unconcerned with the clutter—or anything else, really. They must have been there for some time before we arrived, and they didn’t look like they’d leave anytime soon. They probably could have sat there all day without feeling like they’d missed anything. I imagined it to be some sort of weekend ritual, and I wanted to carry it with me, like a congregant leaving Mass with the Eucharist under his tongue.
Once Jordan and I grabbed our food, we continued driving toward the rising sun; the land became crisper, dryer, and more fully alive, and the wet brown fields turned to faded gold. It only rained in the distance now, where the lazy smudged clouds woke up slowly, stretching their yawning wisps toward the ground below. Each patched field looked like the one before it and the one I knew would come next. My friends in Chicago had called Nebraska a dull drive, with miles and miles of monotonous nothing, and I thought how people on the coasts call it “flyover country.” I tried not to care: I still loved it, and for a time, I found comfort in its peaceful, ceaseless repetition.
But it wasn’t enough. Our quiet soon turned to boredom, and as the bright day broke, we grew restless. We talked, we listened to music, we sat in silence. Each sign marked our slow progression across the state and made us glance at the speedometer to see how much longer we had to go. Our thoughtless, ambling rhythm became as empty as it was comforting.
When we finally reached the Colorado state line, I greeted the arid landscape with relief and the mountainous vistas with hope. I had wanted a long drive with nothing to do, and I got it. But I could only sit back for so long. As we stepped onto the Denver pavement after 16 hours in the car, I was ready to stretch my legs, seek something new, and do something once again.
William Faulkner once said, “One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work.” I know this because I was sitting in my office a few weeks ago and my mind got jittery, so I opened up Twitter and saw, in the stream of news feeds, baseball writers, comedians, journalists, friends, celebrities, magazines, and aggregators, an old Paris Review interview with that quote.
As much as it rang true for me, though, it seemed almost quaint. Because the ceaseless connectivity that lets me read Faulkner’s interview at my office also multiplies the volume of work I can do in it. With digital links across the country and response times shrinking to the immediacy of email, the eight-hour work day has become, for many, a name and little more. And it doesn’t end when you leave the office, either, not when everyone carries their work with them wherever they go, on email and Blackberry and company-issued laptop.
Instead, the work day stretches into the rest of your life, its end-points increasingly undefined, its presence never far. As it does so, it pulls on an already tenuous period of leisure time, one that is not only shrinking, but broken into more interests, more forms of entertainment, more ways to engage and distract yourself than ever before. The two combine into an amorphous, unending present, with fewer periods of uninterrupted focus and less linear progression through the day. My life has become “things I’m working on” more than “things I did today, yesterday, so far.”
I’ll often leave my office in the Chicago Loop by 5:30, and I consider myself fortunate for that. By the time I’ve gotten off the Blue Line and taken the bus to my West Side apartment, it’s still relatively early, but the work day leaves me drained. So I change out of my shirt and tie, and I try to relax a little bit. Sometimes that means talking to my roommates, or maybe turning on a ballgame. Sometimes it means reading something that doesn’t ask too much, like Sports Illustrated or Esquire or Time Out. Sometimes it just means grabbing a drink, sitting on the couch, and letting my mind empty out for a few minutes.
Whatever the case, it’s 7:30 or 8 by the time I finish dinner. That’s when all the information and entertainment around me, all the interests and desires I’ve built up over the years, start to overflow what space I’ve set aside for them. I might read a few chapters of a book or make my way through a long article. Hopefully that ballgame I started watching isn’t a good one, because those can last all night. Sometimes I think I should go out and see a movie, or else stream one from the couch. But those take a lot of time—there goes the day!—so maybe I stream a TV show on Netflix instead. Or watch one of those new episodes pushing my DVR toward full. Maybe I want to hop on the computer and catch up with friends. I don’t see them nearly enough as it is, you know? Hell, I don’t see them enough—so maybe this is a night to meet someone for a beer and relax.
But then again, who wants to sit back and relax when there’s so much to see, so much to do! And it’s all there, night after night. I can dabble each night, sure, maybe do a bit here and a bit there, but it won’t end. Infinite options, infinitely expanding, meet finite time, infinitely fragmented, ad infinitum.
One way to get a handle on this is to prioritize and plan, to schedule your time and discipline yourself. You can make appointments, almost, like setting up a meeting at work—an hour with the TV here, an hour with a friend there. The energy and immensity of leisure interests—the stream of information and entertainment that never ends—burst into your work life, so it only makes sense that the structure of work takes over leisure time. It might help you keep up with and enjoy all those interests, or at least a lot of them.
But it also turns everything into an obligation as much as an experience, and so threatens to make leisure time second-order labor—something that takes work after you leave the office. It requires you to be on, active, what marketers and advertisers call “leaning forward.” That’s a necessary state that can really illuminate the world around you, but if the switch is stuck in the on position nearly 24 hours a day, the power’s eventually going to drain, and you have to wonder how much you’re truly seeing.
Combine this experience with a structure in which everything—not simply work and leisure in the aggregate, but all the activities that compose them, all that news and entertainment and desire—overlaps and interferes with everything else, where it’s all tenuous and you keep moving from one thing to another, and you get an odd situation. It’s like running a marathon through an obstacle course. It’s not that we’ve all lost the capacity for complex thought and sustained activity, but that deep, linear concentration—the kind that springs from idleness and gives birth in turn to insight, wisdom, and creativity alike—is increasingly difficult to achieve. You may seek a full, coherent experience, but what you’re more likely to find are fragmented days and partial pursuits.
While we were strolling through downtown Denver, my friend Christine offered to show us where she works. Christine and I had been close in college, but now we, like everyone else, had scattered across the nation and were mostly connected by email and Facebook. I had no sense of her day-to-day life anymore, and I wanted to see this part of it and try to understand.
Her office was self-consciously open, self-consciously cool, even. Despite the brick walls and gray Berber carpet, everything felt decidedly contemporary: no doors, no cubicles, few offices, and lots of shared space. Christine’s computer was in the right corner of a three-sided, staple-shaped table that was pressed up against a wall, with the empty end facing the hallway.
“It’s really cool how everyone is so open and easygoing here,” she told me. She seemed to like her work—and her office—a lot, and I know she’s good at it. “But I wish I didn’t have to worry about everyone seeing my monitor.” She talked about mastering the harried Alt+Tab, where you surreptitiously peak at emails or whatever else while keeping your fingers on the keyboard in case you need to abruptly switch back to work. I knew exactly what she meant.
“I’ve started typing emails to you guys in Word so it looks like I’m working,” she said. “Then I’ll really quickly paste them into Gmail, send them off, and get back to my job before anyone walks by.”
We left her office and walked around as much of the city as we could, and I felt it out in fleeting images: the striking silver Art Museum, the ugly boxed skyline, the faded yarn flowers knit through a chain-link construction fence. The streets receded past long rows of buildings, their fronts flat like a movie set, and opened onto the vast space beyond them. The city was empty almost everywhere we went, or at least sparse, and all I could think was, Where is everyone? Where, on this clear spring Saturday, was the urban bustle I was used to?
We found the people but not the bustle at the 16th Street Mall. They shambled about calmly, carelessly, like they didn’t have to be anywhere but were moving forward anyway. We spent the rest of that afternoon near the mile-high marker on the State Capitol steps, in the same dreamy half-time as the people on the streets below, simply talking about our lives, telling stories the others had missed, and staring through the Rocky Mountain wallpaper that lines the city.
We hiked those mountains the next day and lost time further, measuring it only in the crunch of our shoes against the ground. We climbed through countless bare aspens and fell through the softening hip deep snow so often it became a running joke. When we finally reached a rocky creek bed near the top, we ate our food, called it the end, and came back down, exhausted.
Back in Christine’s apartment, we tasted the eight tequilas her boyfriend had on hand. He told us about their names, their distillers, their aging, their flavors. I only remember that they tasted good, and that they got me a little drunk, and that I slept soundly.
By the time Jordan and I woke up early the next morning, we were ready to move on. Christine had to get back to work, and we had more plans to chase, more stories to seek.
Walk through any modern office and you’ll see people reading the news, checking fantasy football, listening to music, emailing a friend—as much as they can get away with between the tasks of the day, and as much as they need to remain sane and productive. For me, this means, more than anything else, reading about baseball.
It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest revolutions in the way Americans consume sports over the last few decades—the advent of fantasy and the rise of advanced statistics—began in baseball, because our national pastime was made for the information age, and it thrives on the Internet. Kids used to look at the box score in the morning paper and imagine the previous day’s game; I look at box scores and win expectancy graphs, triple-slash lines and triple crown categories, wOBA and WAR, and innumerable blogs trying to put it all in context. The stats are endless, they’re illuminating, they’re overwhelming, they’re necessary. It could feel like one more flood of information washing over me, a whole world in itself instead of an abstraction of the one it seeks to represent. But baseball has always had numbers at its center, and they’re more often the raw material for telling stories about the game.
Because baseball is, more than anything else, a sport of stories, of concentric narratives that emanate outward: the at-bat, the inning, the game, the series, the season, the career, the arc of the team, the history of the game and its place in our culture. Faced with a fractured, endless, overwhelming day, I try to lose myself in every baseball story I can find. They still enchant me the way they did when I was younger, whether they’re told through numbers on the computer screen or images on the TV.
I’ll sometimes get home, turn on the Cubs, and try to forget about everything else for a few hours. I might watch Aramis Ramirez swing over a 3-1 slider like he wants to hit one onto Waveland Avenue or pop his shoulder out trying, and I’ll wonder what pitch is coming next. With two outs and a runner on second, and the seventh inning ready to break open or fold up, it’ll feel like the turning point of the game. Maybe this is the rubber match in a big series against the Cardinals, and even though the Cubs’ season is over, we can spoil one for our rivals. Aramis will shorten up on the full count with a man in scoring position, look fastball and react breaking ball, try to drive one to right center. I’ll know this because I’ve watched Rami most summer days since the middle of 2003, over eight years with him as a character in my life, and I’ve seen him do it time and again. And I’ll know that we’re coming to the end of his time with the Cubs, and that he’s the only third baseman in forty years to fill the shoes Ron Santo used to click in the outfield after each Cubbie win. I’ll see the steady presence on a bad team in transition, one hoping to turn things around, and I’ll hope along with them as I always do, because they’re the Cubs and that’s what they offer, hope and heartbreak, that and little else for over a hundred years.
These Russian doll narratives are all there in some capacity, even if you only see one or two at a time. They always expand outward, and there’s always something to replace them. The sport proceeds serially: every day there’s a game, every inning there’s a drama, every pitch there’s a battle. It’s boring if you think it’s all repetitive and endless and pointless. But when you give yourself to it for a bit—when you focus on one of its stories for a while—you can replace the fragments of your day with something whole and engrossing, even if each story is actually tenuous and partial, even if they’ll all be replaced by others soon enough.
In this way, as an ongoing serial narrative, the experience of baseball is like the experience of television. You get the same structure of concentric stories with a TV show: the scene, the episode, the story arc, the character arc, the season, the series, the larger story that stretches endlessly beyond the plot. Like baseball stats, like baseball games, TV gives you something that’s always expanding and constantly refreshed, infinite fodder for parsing and discussing and trying to make sense of.
There’s something about this structure that seems to resonate with most of us. That might be why television has erupted with renewed vigor in recent years, with great shows in every corner of cable, the best showrunners elevated to something like auteur status, DVR and Netflix helping us follow it all, and fanboy websites posting breathless weekly recaps.
Look around at the books that have captured our generation’s imagination, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire—the current subway favorite, clutched by handfuls each rush hour, and the inspiration for HBO’s Game of Thrones TV show. That these books are fantasy matters, but so too does their structure, because epic fantasy, like television, like baseball, like Ocarina of Time, unfolds as a serial narrative.
All these stories take place in worlds, from Wrigley Field to Pawnee to Hogwarts, that are both recognizable and recognizably different from the everyday, places imbued with history and legend and myth. Each world can be as expansive as the one we inhabit in our daily lives, but when we experience them, it’s with a loose, sequential order. They pique our desire to know and see more without ever fully satisfying it. What they offer, at any time, is only a part of themselves. The rest we intuit.
The whole always stretches beyond you with a serial narrative, but in each partial look in, each thrilling fragment of a larger story in a larger world, you see part of a loose plan, a free-flowing structure, a temporary escape from the burdens of your eternal present.
It can be strange to “plan” a road trip. The nature of a road trip—what differentiates it from a normal vacation—is the continuous flow, and the space that leaves for chance. You have ideas, not an itinerary. You have stops, not destinations. You perceive instead of looking. You wander from place to place, giving yourself fully to whatever you come across but never trying to do too much. Because however many places you visit in however many days, you probably won’t see the entirety of each one. All you can do is accept that, and embrace each partial view.
What a road trip is, really, is a serial narrative, and a way of bringing that into your life. So what is a serial narrative, and what can it be?
It’s an ongoing collection of subnarratives, each one alive but incomplete on its own. It’s a tenuous whole held together only by the recognition that each part must somehow connect. It’s a way to keep working on and reworking the big ideas and shifting landscape around you, to keep revisiting the same themes, which you may never grasp fully or directly.
It might even be a way of structuring your life, one that provides provisional order to the overwhelming flood of stuff around you. A self-conception that lets you weave your incomplete episodes together. Something that exists in the eternal present but is also outside of it, and can somehow structure it, organize it, maybe even redeem it.
After miles of sun-colored Wyoming landscape, Jordan and I stopped in Casper and caught a John Wayne movie marathon in our hotel. We walked into “the world famous Wonder Bar” with a cowboy swagger, and the bartender told us how it was lost in a card game and how it used to welcome The Duke himself, and Dizzy Dean, and Ernest Hemingway, who came in drunk and angry when his wife was sick and flung silver dollars at the back of the bar. We went to a Sanford and Son-themed bar across the sheet and drank dollar pints amidst the flimsy tchotchkes and cultural debris while a handful of locals told us about growing up in Casper, and waking up drunk on random neighbors’ couches, and wanting to get out and see the world.
We saw a spectacular collection of carved antlers in Dubois and listened to the “Tales from the Togwotee Trail Radio Hour” in my car. We saw all of Yellowstone’s sights and most of its creatures. We saw Mount Rushmore and snapped our pictures in front of it so others could see us there.
We spent a night in Rapid City, where frontier openness mixed with contemporary hipness and a thicket of wondrous graffiti stretched behind our historic hotel. We had a beer with a South Dakota firefighter who told us about coming to Chicago with his band, where he saw the Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s and “that bar Al Capone used to go to,” and I wondered how distorted my idea was of his city was if that’s what he thought of mine.
We laughed our way through miles of signs for Wall Drug—“All roads lead to Wall Drug,” “Awesome: Wall Drug,” “Wall Drug: As told by The Denver Post”—and made a pilgrimage to see it, a 76,000-square-foot repository of American kitsch and clutter—gift shop, art gallery, cafe, amusement park—in a town of less than a thousand.
We scraped our shoes across the rocky Badlands soil and slept beneath the starlit prairie sky. We marveled at the gaudy Mitchell Corn Palace. We passed by countless roadside attractions with narrow appeals we couldn’t begin to comprehend, and the Minnesota Vikings’ church-like headquarters, whose appeal we understood too well.
We drove over 3600 miles in our nine days, and everywhere we went, we found the same flash and whiz of American culture calling to us. We could never get away for long, but we never quite needed to, either. As we threaded our way across the continent, we sewed the pieces we collected into something like a whole. Our days were simply the time when we went someplace new, and our nights were the time we stopped going. I no longer worried about Wednesdays and Saturdays, about leisure time and schedules and work.
But by the end, we were back to where we started, and I was back in my apartment, on my couch, on my computer. I woke up on Monday and went back to the office. This episode of my life was over. I was ready for the next one to begin.