(The following essay is an introduction to MileMarker, a mostly unpublished manuscript I began while driving a truck cross-country for an art-shipping company from 1982-1987. Various excerpts have been published in the Autumn 1986 edition of WhiteWalls (Chicago) as well as the January 4-10, 1989, edition of Westword (Denver).)



March, 1983:

It was at night, crossing the middle of Utah in the cab of a pick-up, that he asked me why I travel. Not if I like to travel, or where, but why. All I could do was stare at the lights on the pavement and notice the first of the snowflakes that had begun to fall. Already that year I had crossed the country more than twice. I had no answer.

* * * *

Summer, 1986. (An Introduction)

Dusk is at this moment creeping out of Indiana into Illinois, overtaking the corn and soybean fields and the fireflies, and as lights first come on in St. Louis and St. Paul it will creep on past the outskirts of Kansas City, allowing westbound drivers on Interstate 70 to remove their sunglasses, and leaving Cleveland and Nashville and Atlanta to glitter as stars in the night.

And while orange rays of light still strike casino towers in Las Vegas and office towers in Los Angeles and the capitols in Salem and Olympia, dusk will be advancing still on the mesas at El Paso and the cottonwoods in Santa Fe and me as I sit with my back to a pillar on the west stone porch of the university library in Boulder, Colorado, thirty feet below a lintel carved with the words "a child" and twenty-odd years after a hot summer night on the south side of Chicago where, cross-legged on the living room floor and a box of flash cards in my hands, I begin this story of maps.

I was six or eight, our air-conditioner was new, and the box said "Learn the States." Inside a stack of cards, each with the outline of a United State and a star for the capital, surrounded by other states in blue. It was a time when my conception of land was the land occupied by my grandmother's tomato stakes in the backyard, my conception of distance the distance I walked with my mother shopping on Ashland Avenue. But there I sat going through the stack over and over, learning the shapes of places named Oregon and Montana, the locations of Little Rock and Carson City, until my brother, who sat there with me testing me, knew that I had the fifty down by heart.

Then one day a map appeared, a stencil. Connect the dots and draw the United States. I learned how Oklahoma locks arms with Texas, how California cradles Nevada, how Maryland sort of oozes out of Pennsylvania. And when I began to color them in, a record began of the states I had been in. My states were between Chicago and Colorado then, all orange. But my Dad had been in the war and had stories of spiders in Texas and trains in Virginia, and secretly I kept a map for him and I envied it, so many of his states were filled in. But it never occurred to me at the time what a state line is exactly, how, except for something tangible like the Mississippi River, they can be moved at will inconveniencing no one, legislating Chicago into Wisconsin and Denver into Wyoming. State lines were not abstract to me at all; they were as real as a baseball bat and more important, and the idea had begun to form that it would be necessary for me to cross them all.

So when I turned fourteen we took a drive to Wisconsin, just for fun. And when we went to visit relatives in Pittsburgh that same summer, I innocently convinced my Dad to make a detour through the tip of West Virginia on the way home. Four years later I spent Thanksgiving with a frat brother at his home in Gettysburg, and one afternoon took a ten-mile walk to Harney just over the Maryland state line, only to have to call his Dad for a ride back when it got dark. Some years after that I was in a car headed to Florida for spring break, when I talked my friends eight miles off of Interstate 24 and into Alabama so that we could say that we'd been there. And a year later, in a carload of art history students on a field trip from New York to Washington, I faked the need to get out at the one and only rest stop on the Delaware Turnpike so that my feet could touch ground. On that same trip I went jogging down the Mall and over the Arlington Memorial Bridge, only to find out later that I hadn't made it all the way to Virginia because I hadn't crossed the second bridge.

These were the grand detours, the excuses for filling in more of the map. But there were other things going on inside of me at the same time, things that I could not point to as easily as a roadmap. Somewhere along the line an artist had walked in, an artist in the sense of painting and drawing. He walked in like a friend of your kids who walks into the living room, unnoticed because the TV is on and you are in the kitchen. And when you do notice his feet on the coffeetable and his little piles of trash by the curtains you ignore him, until, of course, he starts checking under the beds and telling you what TV program to watch, and how exactly to broil the chicken.

So it was with me: nothing outrageous at first, even a reluctance in kindergarten to draw a picture of Our New President Kennedy (I amazed everyone instead with my knowledge of the alphabet; one classmate thought it was my name). But there were glitter-and-toothpick ornaments for Christmas in the second grade, potato-prints in the fifth, and, on Thanksgiving mornings sprawled on my grandmother's floor, waiting for dinner and watching the Macy's parade from New York, drawings on sheets of typing paper taped together, rows of roadside stands with shelves of rubber-stamped turkeys and pumpkins. Nothing to notice at first, really. But then one day a rather detailed pencil portrait of the state capitol in Springfield appeared, and, freshman year in high school, a first watercolor: a snowed-on tree and a barn done from the page of a calendar. Well, that calendar eventually yielded as many paintings as there were days, it seemed, and I began to look: Trees. Gloves. Sunsets. The exact color of shadows on snow. Bricks. Fences. Autumn leaves. Painting meant looking, and looking, to me, meant travel.

I picked up my road atlas and the pages came alive. Red lines and blue lines and county lines, rivers and elevations and the typeface telling population. Everywhere my eyes went I imagined what the landscape did. And Wetumka and Ogallala and Menominee were no longer towns; they became faces, and breathed. Interstate 80 became and artery, U.S. 51 a vein. Florida and Maine became the palms of outstretched hands. Kansas was a skin. The Rockies became the heart.

I can go on and on about where I traveled then: hitchhiking to Fairbanks and Labrador and Halifax, driving my aunt to Phoenix and San Francisco, driving myself to Oklahoma City and Penobscot Bay, planning for weeks with Rand McNally and then, once out, taking pictures and taking detours, comparing always what I saw with what I had imagined, and knowing that I was filling in more than my old orange map.

The night I was moving is the night the stories here begin. A degree in sculpture, the world packed into my car, I was driving through Des Moines on my way from Illinois, and I wrote about it the next morning over breakfast in Council Bluffs. I drove on to Los Angeles and I kept driving, at first for artists who were moving either to New York or from New York, later for an art-shipping company driving paintings and sculpture between artists and galleries, between San Francisco and Dallas and Chicago, between Los Angeles and Santa Fe and Boston.

At this writing I am still doing that, driving about six months out of the year, writing about it at times, making paintings at home and in motel rooms, taking photographs. I have been living in Colorado for almost a year, I fly to go to work and I fly home. And I should tell you about that flying sometime. About looking down on days worth of driving in a matter of hours, about comparing the roads and rivers I can see out the window with the road atlas opened on my lap. About shooting across the sky like the edge of dusk, the dusk that turns with the curve of earth and visible only to astronauts, watching for lights to come on as though they were the answers to questions that none of us can even begin to ask.

I sit with my back to a pillar on the west stone porch of the university library in Boulder, Colorado, the town where I live. "Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always a Child" is the carved inscription on the stone lintel thirty feet above my head, an inscription that lies in a very different context from the one in which I write. But for me, today, the last two words are where I linger, and I can tell you, for instance, and with amusement, how many states I have been in to this day. I can tell you how, occasionally, in the morning, long before the sun has had a chance to hit any of those words up there, I pull out my road atlas and follow the red lines to Idaho, to the Carolinas, even to Hawaii. And I can tell you too that in quite a different and roundabout way, I have been occupied all these years with assembling yet another map, my own very personal one, still connecting dots that are the pages that follow.

Jack Balas


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