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June 2006, vol 2 no 2

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Dru Philippou

road to Macadam

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 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.  Poseidon explains, to him, the importance of the process of travel:

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:

          Here biginneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

          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 scent of desert sage inundates.  I slow down:

sharp curve
holding the swastika
dangling from the mirror

I stop at a parking lot, 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. 

The square patches of asphalt represent a triptych.  It will hang on the east wall of the gallery.

The potholes represent a diptych.  It will hang on the south wall of the gallery.

Potholes are every traveller's nightmare.  Pothole patching requires:

crushed rock
a bucket of tack
an asphalt mix
asphalt sealer
soapy water

The square above represents a patched pothole. 

The cracked asphalt section will hang on the west wall of the gallery.

The chicken wire effect will hang on the north wall of the gallery.

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 round basket boat, or gufa (see below)
p oultry house floors
h air, fat, & pitch made into cakes, fed to the dragon in the Book of Daniel 
a bone pit for paleontologists
l innings for fish hatcheries
t he Buddhists called it "earth-butter" & used it on roofs

Today asphalt has many names, for example, macadam, blacktop, tarmac.  It is found in natural lakes, and is 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.

All artists have a profound need to understand their material—here is an asphalt recipe 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 rush and turmoil of shoppers begins.  The traveller, I passed earlier, saunters towards me.  He's a tall lanky fellow caked with grime.  He asks for change.  I fumble through my pockets and give him some quarters.  He hands me a crumpled picture and walks away.

I turn the picture over and read: St. Christopher, from the Polyptych of S. Vincenzo Ferreri by Giovanni Bellini (1426-1516).

I glimpse at a flower blooming through the asphalt and think of Marcel Duchamp's words: "The only thing that is not art is inattention."  I pour the last of my Élan Vital over the plant.  I reflect how we attend to things moment by moment, sometimes consciously and most times not.  In attending fully, we stretch towards objects lying 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 going in all directions.  I climb into 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,  A Haiku Journey: 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, copyright 2006, Jim Richards.