14th March, 2006. One early morning during a full moon lunar eclipse, unable to sleep,
I get in my car and drive south. In the rearview mirror, Colorado's snow-capped Mount
Blanca diminishes with distance, to the right a bald turkey buzzard tears at a carcass,
to the left last summer's scarecrow listens to the seeds germinating beneath the earth,
each pulling the other to the coming of life.
Continuing south, I pass a traveller carrying a heavy backpack. Jack Kerouac's words
come to mind:
What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on
the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It's the too-huge world vaulting
us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the
The road provides new perspectives. Road trips are universal constants, archetypal
forces sustaining the human spirit. They have existed throughout history. From the
ancient Greeks, we learn of Odysseus' 17 years of adventure. The process of travel
and its importance:
It is the journey itself that makes up a life. Only when you understand
this will you understand the meaning of wisdom.2
From Medieval England, we learn of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrimage to Canterbury:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne, And smale fowles maken melodye, That slepen al the night with open yë, (So priketh hem nature in hir corages): Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, (And palmers for to seken straunge strondes) To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes; And specially, from every shires ende Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, The holy blisful martir for to seke, That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.3
a pilgrim turns her head by the roadside the brightness of daffodils
From the 17th century we learn of Matsuo Basho's untempered urge for travel:
But when spring came with its misty skies, the god of temptation possessed me
with a longing to pass the Barrier of Shirakawa, and road gods beckoned, and I could
not set my mind to anything.4
Opposite, alongside it, moving through it, crossing the border, flat turnarounds,
the end of which keeps receding, in returning, in departing into wilderness, vectors
and yieldable curves, beyond the vanishing point lie appetites and ambitions, to know
the blind spot, coasting epochs, along fault lines, presages our hopes and ruins,
thought chaffing, inventing life partners, where we strayed, be-yond repose, courting
loneliness, speeding, caterpillar inching the dashboard, loving bread between altercations,
the constraints of ONE WAY, CUL-DE-SAC, NO PARKING, 15 MPH, RED LIGHT, nuthatches
and chickadees, miles and miles of wheat plains, there's much of Thoreau, wiping rag,
jar of Miracle Whip on the berm, picking tea-leaves off the tongue, pffft, bioluminescences—fireflies,
thistles and barbs, thises and thats.
Winding down the window, the wild scent of sage inundates. I slow down:
sharp curve holding the swastika dangling from the mirror
I stop at a parking lot and take out the camera.
When social context is removed: supermarkets, shoppers, trolleys, cars, an empty parking
lot becomes an area for abstract art. I notice the asphalt's textures, shapes, shadows,
lines, patterns and begin work.
This triptych will hang on the east wall of the gallery.
This diptych of potholes will hang on the south wall.
Potholes are every traveller's nightmare. Pothole patching requires:
crushed rock a bucket of tack an asphalt mix asphalt sealer soapy water
A patched pothole.
This solo piece will hang on the west wall.
This chicken wire effect will hang on the north wall.
Often, we fail to notice that most space in which we move is flat horizontal road
surface. What habitually acts on the perceiver, feet on the ground, goes into the
Asphalt is skin. It breathes. It's flexible. It expands under the sun and contracts
under cold weather. Asphalt is contagious; it has spread all over the world. Asphalt uses:
a dhesive for gold foil statues s ealing agent for gufas p oultry house floors h air, fat, & pitch made into cakes was fed to the dragon, Book of Daniel a bone pit for paleontologists l innings for fish hatcheries t he Buddhists used it on temple roofs, called it "earth-butter"
Today asphalt has many names, for example, macadam, blacktop, tarmac. It is found
in natural lakes as a mixture of sand and limestone. One of the largest sources is
from Pitch Lake, Trinidad Island. Tourists complain that it looks like a parking lot.
They fail to notice its surrounding beauty:
Cashew trees ring the lake, and guava, mango and breadfruit trees have found
a way to survive. Water rose, nymph lilies and bird of paradise grow naturally out
of the muck. Herons are everywhere, eating the algae that grow under pockets
of water, along with hummingbirds, sandpipers and kingfishers. Locals say
that during the dry season, when the sun bakes the skin of the lake, ospreys
drop freshly caught fish to cook on the broiling surface.5
Pitch Lake, hisses, spits, gurgles, burps. You can walk on its surface, feel its peristaltic
All artists have a profound need to understand their material—here is a recipe for
asphalt, provided by Mark Polhemus:
Fines - little pieces of rock, or bits of old car tires Aggregate - bigger pieces of rocks Oil - preferably AR-4 A big thing to heat it in
1 - Mix ingredients 2 - Heat to 360 degrees F 3 - Spread it out 4 - Let it harden
In 1894 asphalt was mysterious:
In the very midst of the city, the ground was covered by some dark stuff that
silenced all the wheels and muffled the sound of hoofs. It was like tar, but Papa
was sure it was not tar, and it was something like rubber, but it could not
be rubber because rubber cost too much.6
at the YIELD road sign the debate
The sun rises above the mountains. The parking lot is filling with shoppers. And the
traveller I saw earlier on the road heads towards me. He's a tall lanky fellow caked
with grime. He asks for change. I fumble through my purse. He hands me a crumbled
picture and disappears. I stare at the picture and read the inscription. St. Christopher, from the Polyptych
of S. Vincenzo Ferreri by Giovanni Bellini (1426-1516).
I glimpse at a flower blooming through the asphalt and recall Marcel Duchamp's words:
"The only thing that is not art is inattention." I pour the last of my Élan Vital
over the plant and think about how we rarely attend consciously to life. In being
present, we stretch beyond our boundaries, into the field of all possibilities. I
gaze back at the flower and what passes for reality changes, enters the stream. I
focus on St. Christopher then the miles of asphalt veering in various directions.
I get in my car and drive.
abandoned trail free-roaming
lumps of asphalt
1 Jack Kerouac, On the Road, (New York: The Viking Press, 1974).