I headed up the 101 Freeway toward Hollywood to check my mail one last time before I headed out of town. I had an artist residency in North Dakota, was hoping a check would be in my mail box – Hollywood’s my official address – that I could cash before I left. There wasn’t. But there was an envelope from Covered California, the state’s version of Obamacare. I opened it to find that I was indeed covered…for the month of March, 2014. That was good to know. I hopped back in my Jeep Cherokee, pulled back onto the road and settled in behind the wheel as I headed out of town.
Santa Clarita. Palmdale. Lancaster. Mojave. I followed Highway 14 northeast into the dry, hot land to Highway 395. When I reached it, I turned, heading due north. Every now and then 395 shrunk 2 lanes. I’m out in the country, I thought, lazilly steering around each curve with one hand on the wheel. Finally. It’s good to be Out There. Things is slower here. Hey, if I needed to pull over and take a piss, I could. Nobody else would even pass by, probably. Even someone did…phshaw!…what would they care?
To my left, little foothills steadily grew into the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains. I rode along side the ridge for hours, until I turned onto Highway 120 into the mountains and toward Yosemite National Park, singing Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again…
…goin’ places that I’ve never been, seein’ things that I may never see again…
I paid the price for admission, drove deep into the park, parked, walked around. It was cold, I put on a jacket. But the sky was cobalt blue with just a smattering of cotton ball clouds and the sun heated the side of your body facing it. Although crowded, the park was heavy with quiet. All the visitors walked about slowly and silently as if they were just another species of pack animal. Some were in couples, groups or were solo like me. Collectively, our wide eyes gazed up at the sheer cliffs, the bulbous stone peaks, peered out over wide meadows where Serenity floated just above the land like morning fog.
I wanted to stay a little longer – possibly forever – but the sun had begun its nosedive to the horizon and I wanted to get a little further down the road, so I walked back to the Cherokee, crept down the winding road leading out of the park. Curve after curve, the temperature got warmer. When I pulled out onto 395 summer was raging again. A few miles past the Yosemite entrance, I passed an SUV on the side of the road. Three girls ran out from behind a bush, toward the SUV, pulling up their shorts, grinning. See? Nobody cares at all…
Just before I reached Carson City, Nevada, I got the feeling that I could drive all night. Then I hit the wall of exhaustion that always comes seconds after that feeling. I got a motel room and slept.
The next morning, my friend Laura from Helena, Montana, said I could come visit her if I was heading up that way. So I headed that way.
Eastbound on Highway 95 through Nevada. Beginning there and continuing through Idaho and Montana, the roads were populated with many bikers – old men on loud Harley-Davidsons, dressed in leather. Some had their wives, or lady friends with them. They rode in packs, pairs and solo. Hands high on the handle bars, their long gray hair flowing back into The Past as they faced the future and peered into it with sunglassed eyes trying to find some clue as to what the freakin’ Past may have been about. Take all my hair, read the expression on their faces. Every last one for all I care…
A little passed Elko, Nevada, I took State Highway 225 northward. There, I rode out of the desert into high, grassy rolling hills with occasional mountains. On both sides of the road were public lands – so said the signs – that belonged to you and me and everybody. But when the sun was an inch above the horizon I rolled into the Shoshone Paiute Indian Reservation. I rolled down the windows and the fresh evening air made me tired. I had no clue where the next motel would be but when I came upon a lake I noticed a sign that said I could pay $6 – slip it in a box next to the sign – to camp on the lake for the night. So I did. Then I drove down a steep dirt path to the lake’s shore. It was a very pretty lake. Blue glass. I stood on a rock at the shoreline, gazed across it to the beautiful yellow-green hills and the snow-capped mountains just beyond. Hmm…that’s strange. Snow on the mountains. Damn near July in Nevada. Weird. Just after the sun dipped below the hills and shadows started to blanket the land, I felt OK about everything…about the World, who I was and where I belonged in the World. I fit just fine. I’m just fine, after all these years, everything’s just fine. When the sun set, I was ready for sleep. I laid out my sleeping bag in the back of the Cherokee, crawled in, peered out the window. Gee…snow caps. July. Nevada.
I awoke at 2:30am to the yelps coyotes. The view out the window was filled stars as if I were in a spaceship looking down at the lights of some city on some planet. Then I realized I was shaking. I was cold. Too cold. I curled into as tight a ball as I could, the sleeping bag up to my eyeballs. One by one, the stars disappeared. Two hours later, only about five were left hanging in the morning sky. I crawled out of the sleeping bag, into the drivers seat, started the engine. The temperature read 39℉. I stared at the world through the windshield, through the cloud of my breath. Yep..snow f#$kin’ caps alright. I drove up the dirt road and back onto 225.
Cows walked across the road here and there with no fear, as I motored through the reservation. Little calves ran after the mamma cows, nipping at their udders. Bulls mooed deeply at me. The highway followed the winding Humboldt river. Steam hovered above it as if the river’s soul was trying to leave it and go somewhere else. Frost covered the blue-green grass along its banks until the sun popped up over the hills and melted it. Junky Jim Walter’s Homes sprinkled the landscape, surrounded by one, two or three clunker automobiles. But all the Indians appeared to be sleeping in. It was Sunday after all.
At Bruneau, Idaho – a town with just over 300 inhabitants – I stopped at a country store for some coffee. Three old men were sitting at a table and they turned and stared at me as if I was a raccoon that’d just wandered into their kitchen. After a while, one of the men stood and hobbled to the counter.
“Coffee?” I asked.
“Right there,” pointed the man. I went to where he pointed, poured a cup. “Where you headed, young man?”
The old man straightened his back and Jesus! He is the size of a f#$kin’ statue! He looked out the window, then down on me. “How you gettin’ there?”
“Cause you don’t wanna go through Mountain Home.”
“No. You don’t wanna go to Helena from here but I guess you have to now since you’re here. What you do, is when you get to Mountain Home, you take the first right, then you take the first right after the Wal-Mart. Two rights. That’s all and that gets you to the Interstate.”
The old man was right. Two rights later I was on the Interstate. That evening I pulled into Helena. Laura guided me to her house by phone.
“It’s so good to finally meet you!” She said as she hugged me.
I’d known Laura only via instant media – a friend of a friend. But only minutes later me, her and her boyfriend, Garret, were conversing like long lost friends. We never stopped talking even through dinner and the walk after, and through the drive around Helena after that.
“Oh, look, there’s the old theatre where Mark Twain spoke,” Laura would say or something like that, in between our deeper ponderings about Life…not work, or ambition or goals or anything about who we thought we wanted to be, but Life – as a whole, you, me every living thing and inanimate thing in The Universe – contemplating what exactly IT all was and where IT might be headed. “And there’s some preserved cabins from back in the mining days.” Then back to Life. By 1am we were back at Laura’s, deep into the subjects of Free Will and Illusion, and the catastrophic consequences if Humankind achieved mortality…and finally to the inevitable discussion of the haunting notion of Computer Intelligence. I’d been awake for 21 hours.
“I think I need to sleep.”
The next morning, Garret, Laura took me to breakfast.
“This is special,” Garett said. “Here we are, we didn’t know each other and now we know so much about each other.”
“And it just took a day,” said Laura.
“This is real living,” I said. “I think.”
“This local artist and I have been working on something together,” Garett said. “He makes sketches and I hand them out to strangers that I get to know. Would you like to have one?”
“And would you like to give it to somebody you meet on your travels?”
My first thought was, Oh, no. You see I’m gonna be real busy, working on my book, and doing so many other…
“Absolutely,” I answered. “I’d love to.”
“It was so wonderful to get to know you,” Laura said, in the parking lot as we hugged.
“Please come through again, anytime. And maybe we’ll see you in LA,” continued Laura.
Laura and Garett walked to their cars, I to mine. I had the sketch in my hand and…life just keeps going like water spilled on a table. Until I evaporate or drip off the edge…I got in and started the engine and took Highway 12 straight through the heart of Montana, witnessing staggering beauty along that road that I could attempt to explain to you but you’d have to take the drive yourself to truly understand it.
The next morning I took Highway 2 into North Dakota. The land flattened with every mile. I passed through one tiny farm town after another and thought of my own farm town home of Orange Grove, Texas, way down at the opposite end of the country. Then I thought very fondly of my childhood. It was a good childhood, when I look at it all these years later. I saw it all, crystal clear. Those real, real memories. Who knows if they really happened? Who cares? There I am, a little kid…
Fortunately, the wind was blowing across Highway 2 at about 30mph. I had to negotiate the wind like a sailor on a skiff, which kept me from sinking down any deeper into the Great Ocean of Memory.