Dru Philippou: road to Macadam

Fall '06 TOC

 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.

dru philipppou

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 skies.1

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

The road:

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.

dru philipppou     dru philipppou    dru philipppou

This diptych of potholes will hang on the south wall.

dru philipppou   dru philipppou

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.

dru philipppou

This solo piece will hang on the west wall.

dru philipppou

This chicken wire effect will hang on the north wall.

dru philipppou

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 subconscious.

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 motion.

dru philipppou

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 continues

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).

dru philipppou

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).

2 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. R.V. Rieu (Maryland: Penguin Books, 1963).

3 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ed. Walter W. Skeat (New York: The Modern Library, 1929).

4 Matsuo Basho, Basho's Narrow Road to a Far Province, trans. Dorothy Britton (Tokyo: Kodansha Int. Inc., 1974).

5 Sunday Express, (London), June 6, 1999.

6 Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1963).

Photograph credits, Jim Richards
Originally published in Contemporary Haibun Online


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