From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.
I. THE BIG COUNTRY
There is a stretch of I-64 West between St. Louis and Iowa City, Iowa. It measures 255 miles from spot to spot and takes eight years to cross in a vehicle traveling at any speed. Moving north out of St. Louis, you pass out of the city and into farms and a landscape of shaved patches of farmland. It resembles a collection of long burial plots for recently murdered giants.
At some point it breaks away from the interstate and becomes US 61, and you ride through Iowa and there is just jack shit in all directions, long farmy blights dotted with aluminum sheds and places to buy aluminum sheds. You can't drive fast enough through it. The landscape sucks away at the wheels of your car, and the air dulls the grip of tires on the pavement. A burst of trees around the interstate means a river is approaching. Every one of them has the ominous beauty of a place you would find a body floating in while fishing one morning.
This is where my brother's in-laws live. They are nice and religious and normal and eat together and pray before meals. When the in-laws asked my nephew what he was thankful to God for, he squeezed up his face into a confused expression and told them: pffft, there isn't a God. The conclusion, looking out the window at the plains, would be absolute either way: either he exists, or he doesn't, and there's not much in between.
Highway 61 was so boring and endless it made its own time dilation bubble. I had to listen to a jumbo-sized Howard Stern interview with Billy Joel to get halfway to Iowa City. I hate Billy Joel, but I swear it was the only option on the radio that didn't crackle and die after an hour, and it was just him somewhere in a studio in the crowded rat warren of the New York metropolitan area moaning on and on about how he couldn't write and would rather be working on motorcycles in the vanity repair shop he opened for the expressed purpose of losing money and working on motorcycles and how Howard would just play snippets of "Vienna" and go oh why aren't you making music, and ... this. A three-hour interview of Billy Joel talking to Howard Stern about how bored he is of life and living it is total fucking horror, and it was still preferable to the silence.
After 17 hours of driving, Iowa City decided to appear. A hundred thousand people had assembled for Ohio State-Iowa that day, in the middle of the country, where there is nothing on the radio but echoes of what someone is mumbling 1,000 miles away.
The first college football game involved 23 male college students playing a game that looked a lot like rugby. It was really, really long ago — longer than you even think. It was four years after Appomattox. Jesse James wouldn't even commit his first robbery until December in Gallatin, Missouri later that year. 1869 was so long ago that the ceremony honoring the ancient Rutgers players who played in the first college football game took place in 1921. The last survivor of the game died in 1939. He was named, appropriately enough, George H. Large.
If one of the players fell on the field and onto a stray nail, they might’ve died a horrendous death from tetanus. If a rabid stray dog ran onto the field in the middle of the game and attacked a player, that player stood a good chance of dying. Broken bones killed. Medicine itself could do the same and often stumbled to diagnoses of football fatalities like "[he] was tackled, and when he fell a weed entered his nostril and penetrated the brain, causing death a few hours later" with a straight face. "Unknown cause" accounted for 17% of all deaths in the United States in 1900. Murder, in all likelihood, was much easier to get away with in the 19th century.*
*Animal attacks seem deeply undercounted here. Railroad accidents are their own category.
Rutgers players wore no special uniforms. In order to distinguish themselves from the Princetonians, they wore scarlet scarves on their heads. Try to figure out what they were doing from the descriptions on field, and you will lose save for the vague inclination that:
a.) The players instinctively formed the flying wedge, not so much out of any real strategy but out of a survival instinct unchanged since the days of the Roman phalanx.
b.) Rutgers was smaller but better organized, and won against a larger, more talented Princeton team. The 2003 BCS Championship, but played with syphilis and consumption and in the freezing cold of New Jersey rather than the balmy breezes of Miami.
c.) Jim Tressel would have been a hell of a prehistoric football coach.
Rutgers won 6-4. A Rutgers professor, upon seeing the carnage of the game, screamed at the participants: You will come to no Christian end!
Some friends of mine once drove the whole length of I-10 between Florida and Arizona just to watch Florida lose. They stayed up drinking coffee like idiots who did not drink coffee, because they were 18 and too broke for cocaine but not desperate enough for methamphetamine. They ordered it black from McDonald's and drove at 90 miles per hour through the wastes of West Texas and Arizona to go scalp tickets with food money, rent money, money meant for other things. That money flew from their pockets like so many bugs speeding toward the buzzing purple light of a football game.
When they got there, Nebraska annihilated Florida 62-24. I was there and heard Jacquez Green's hip pop out of joint with a noise like that of deboning a chicken. I flew back with the band. My friend and his friends drove back the whole length of the country, measuring their gas to the ounce and having a lovely conversation with a Texas state trooper about how fast one should speed through Cormac McCarthy country. Their proposition was somewhere around 94 miles per hour; his counterargument, one enforced by local law, was one significantly lower.
There are others.
A Florida fan once crashed his plane in a tree outside Starkville and still made the game — a loss. Another friend flew from Russia to watch Georgia Tech play and lose, then flew straight back to Russia. During the Depression, people who barely had the money for basic amenities piled onto flatbeds and bumped down despicable roads to make the Red River Rivalry in Dallas, where they ate fried whatever and scalped tickets they had no business buying just to sit in the stadium beneath the boiling sun and the erector set spotlights of the Cotton Bowl. Recessions never seem to cut into the ticket budget; depressions just become an opportunity to carpool and meet new people.
Sense has never made a dent in how people fuck, drink, or watch football. They are inelastic ghosts with tin ears and large, bellowing mouths.
It is a huge game, and it is played along the long distances of strange historical songlines. You have to go 394 miles and drive for six hours to get from Austin to Lubbock along US 84, a road partially based on the old El Camino Real, the corridor to Mexico based on old Native American trails. To get to the Rose Bowl from downtown L.A. you follow an old cattle trail now paved over with a highway. Florida State plays football in Tallahassee, a town constructed simply because that's where two surveyors met to form the capital of the territory of Florida.
When the Colorado-Nebraska rivalry resumes in 2018, it will happen along I-80, a road built along still-visible traces of the Oregon Trail. Take any of the highways over the Rockies to get to a game, feel the wind kick your car around the ice just before they close the passes, and think to yourself: some insane motherfucker with a gun on a mule did this without a cellphone or rest stop in sight.
The last reasonable man in the history of college football was Andrew Dickson White, the Cornell president who forbade a group of students to travel to Michigan, saying "I refuse to let 40 of our boys travel 400 miles merely to agitate a bag of wind." Everyone else, from that point forward, forgot all sense and let people cross whatever irrational distance they wanted to in the name of football.
And even if you cheat and skip the highway and fly over the long sprawl of irrigation circles, subdivisions, and the quilty, pixelated landscape of college football, you still have to get there. And there, by definition, can be odd, quaint, small, rural, or flat hillbilly, depending on your standards of oddity. Kansas State has cows within sight of the stadium. Lane Stadium at Virginia Tech looks and feels like stumbling onto a lost set from a Peter Jackson film: gray limestone piled into a turreted fortress teeming with hunting gear-clad bear-men slamming turkey legs into their mouths. Notre Dame Stadium is as alien a landscape as there is in college football, a party in a mausoleum with wooden benches surrounded by what reasonably feels like a seminary. Baton Rouge is everything that haunted John Kennedy Toole's worst nightmares. Leave your laptop in a bag in Stillwater, and someone has already chased you three blocks up the street to give it back to you. Go to Boulder and realize you have done something very wrong to not be there all the time, and to not look like the people there, and do the healthy, fit, virtuous and cheerful things they do.*
*Going to Boulder is realizing you are now, by making all the choices you have made in your life, part of the problem forever.
Football started in the incubator of the Northeast, went feral, and ran until it hit the West Coast, fanned back, and filled whatever lay in between. It became the sport of the in-between parts of the country. By 1926 its axes had already shifted to different, strange coordinates thousands of miles from New Jersey. Alabama plays under the symbol of a set of luggage they took across the country in 1926 in the Rose Bowl. They would play strange Californians from Stanford in a 7-7 tie. The trip was 2,000 miles by train to Pasadena. The symbol on their luggage: a red elephant from Rosenberger's Birmingham Trunk, Inc.
It is a big country, and the very language of college football comes from moving across it.
You may have grown up somewhere. I did not. I never had that feeling, even when I did grow up in a definite somewhere. This isn't anyone's fault: there is a default switch somewhere in the human brain that makes people feel at home, like there is safety. It's pressed into the "on" position at birth for most people, and turned off and on at will by people who can move around in life without much trauma.
Mine is broken. It would be so very, very cool if epigenetics worked like I wanted it to, and this was a video game, and in that video game I was a lowly office worker with the genes of an ancient race of loyal assassins. My switches are set to one setting: run. On one side of the family, for generations back, there are no me. There are bootleggers and horse trainers and people whose name in the family tree is spelled with a question mark. Once I asked my grandmother about her father, and her father's father. Contrary to what you might hear, you can outrun history. Both my great-grandfather and his father sprinted off the page and into oblivion before my grandmother could make a single print of their faces. Every house feels like a coffin to me, but at least I came by that feeling honestly.
My father did well enough. After a childhood spent in barns and racetracks and driving cars he had no license for through the streets of Miami when he was 14, he got married, had children, and kept them safe and fed and mostly schooled. He stuck around until all the kids got out of the house, but still moved us every two years or so. The company wanted him to move, he'd say, but he was always willing to shuffle back and forth between the same cities, buying houses so quickly that we once bought the same house twice to just save the time of home-shopping. Even after he'd gotten to be an executive, he kept the family moving: he once moved the family between three houses in six years at one point, all while never leaving the same town.
I always ask where he is now. This is not to make small talk. This is so I know where he is, because it is very, very easy to lose track of him, and because one day someone's going to have to send a search party out to his last known location in order to find him. (I hope you are reading this, Dad, because I have the hounds and am ready.)
So if I ended up at one point in life incapacitated in a Chinese hospital in Kunming, China, it came to me honestly. I fell asleep watching Chinese state television and dreamed I was walking up a road like the one leading up to a monastery outside Zhongdian. Walking up the road took dream-time: impossibly long, cinematic, and into a spitting sunshower like you get in high, dry places with random, infuriating weather. The dream was entirely POV; I remember distinctly looking down at my hands like I was sitting in a first-person shooter.
The monastery has a central temple, the white wedding cake of a Tibetan monastery with steps cut into its sides. The golden roof curves against the sky. Monks carry baskets up the stairs, walking in a zigzag across and up the steps to alleviate the load on their legs. The rain stops, then starts again, then chokes out completely as a cloud blows off and unveils the sun like a curtain blown off a searchlight.
At the top of the stairs stands Steve Spurrier, wearing the yellow hat and red robes of a Tibetan lama, grinning like he'd just called Mills for an 80-yard TD.
Then I woke up, and saw my wife sitting next to me reading.
You are not your genes, but sometimes there is this thing that makes me want to put my head to the wall of the world's engine and listen to the live current whirring around inside it. The need to move, to feel everything as something as alien as I feel all the time, to go as far as I can away from the concept of home and thus feel something like a normality. To make a fact of the imaginary world where you are something comfortable and something content.
This would rule everything I've ever done, if it weren't for the nagging complication of being someone to someone else, someone more human. I'm told that person exists, even though I barely talk to him. He is the one who doesn't drive alone in rental cars through the American West for fun, the one badgered into making doctor's appointments for himself after years of procrastination. He is the one who only occasionally catches the house on fire while making coffee in the morning and turning on Octonauts for the kids while making breakfast. He is the one who watches football on the couch in a somewhere, a definite somewhere with definite someones, somewhere that could definitely be construed as a home.
For a long time I used to run. It's not something healthy people do, really, since most runners are channeling something else away from their lives into motion: addiction, compulsion, loss. You might not, and that's great. Either you're lying to yourself, or you're the only human being who ever ran for the right reasons. I ran because I was convinced I was damned, running from the long arm of doom itself. I ran because it was cheaper and easier to manage than drinking yourself into the same state.
The idea is to get the same result: washed up in the middle of nowhere, blasted and hopeless and blank on a beach with nothing more than the tattered shards of your brain in your hands. I swear, if you are the kind of person who wakes up with a hole in your chest every morning, there is nothing, absolutely nothing better than this feeling. It is glorious. It's not just that you've killed yourself and gotten away with it. It's the notion that you've destroyed even the ability to separate from yourself and the environment, dismantled the entire apparatus of observation.
If the Mars Rover took itself apart spontaneously, I would understand. It would just be doing what it wanted most of all: not to watch the sunrise over a Martian plain, but to be that sunrise. I'd understand, Mars Rover. I would so understand what you were trying to do.
Last night Georgia State won their first game since October 13, 2012. Be clear about this: Georgia State is a very bad football team. They deserved and earned every single loss, and nearly deserved one last night. Abilene Christian is a better put-together team, but suffers from the usual problems of being smaller, not quite as fast, and slightly less huge than their opponent. That's another place where the long arm of doom will, in most cases, happily steal what it by natural right can: bigger crushes smaller, and heavy rolls downhill over the shanties of the world without pity.
Georgia State, like the majority of football programs in a lopsided sport, is doomed to walk the earth and lose. They will lose so many games, in so many places, and in such grotesque, uneven fashion. But last night they won, and their kicker fell prostrate on the logo at the 50 under the stretched fabric of a dome that will, in all likelihood, be rubble in a few years. Every gleeful moment from last night will literally be demolished by bulldozers, time, and the invisible hands of mustachioed billionaires.
And then, after that, I got to go home. This morning the other guy — the one who doesn't want to run — woke up and found the same woman from the hospital in his kitchen holding a cup of coffee with a toddler clinging to her leg. The lama from the dream coaches a football team tonight. I do not think he will be wearing the hat, but you never know.
I honestly don't know at what point the two people in my head meet. The older I get the less division there is between dream and reality, less of a huge divide between waking and sleep, and less concern about reconciling the two. I still love to drive into the middle of nowhere and see the desert that sits somewhere in my chest reflected in my eyes in the landscape around me. I also know that in the middle of all that nothing, there is something waiting with floodlights and deafening noise, thousands of people huddling in the spaces in between in snow, rain, howling winds, heat, sun, and cold. I know that there are two people writing this at all times, and both have something they call home.
I know that I live somewhere between the two spaces. I know that it is a big country, and its sport is played out in the ceaseless, damned wandering across it in so many different definitions of the phrase.
I hope you know it is an unfair game with no Christian end. I hope that even with knowing that, you don't care. I hope it still takes you home somewhere. I hope you get to wander the big country, and I hope it still stops something in your heart when you see it.
I hope it still makes you want to run.
Thanks to Luke Zimmermann for the GIFs