Refuge Of The Roads
“In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads”
-Joni Mitchell, from “Hejira”
© 1976; Crazy Crow Music
I borrowed my title from Joni, one of our most woefully over-looked poets, another tribute to my fifty-year love affair with her work. Her 1976 road collection Hejira, is a deeply imbedded mind worm I will never extricate, and those stories never fail to pull on my gypsy strings.
Leaving home, hitting the road, casting oneself into uncertainty and danger, discovering the unknown, seeing one’s reflection in the landscape and the sky—these have been the stimuli and the “itch” that have propelled writers, artists and thinkers to abandon home, family and security and set out alone, across the seas, over the mystic mountains or out on the road. From Homer to de Tocqueville and Conrad, we wandered or made our character inventions do so for us. Lewis and Clark, Kerouac, Kesey and Cormac McCarthy all went searching too, venturing out to “look for America” as Paul Simon sang. Some found it, others foundered.
Richard Kreitner, on his excellent road trip website, Atlas Obscura, quotes Samuel Bowles from 150 years ago thusly:
“There is no such knowledge of the nation as comes of traveling in it, of seeing eye to eye its vast extent, its various and teeming wealth, and, above all, its purpose-full people.” Bowles’ Across the Continent was likely the first true American road-trip book.
Since 1971 I have received mail at forty-six addresses, including having been happily rooted here in this place the past seventeen years. Perhaps that makes me a wanderer. If so, I come by it honestly. My maternal grandparents, John Thomas and Catherine (Callahan) Long were relentlessly restless, and even in their later years thought nothing of jumping into their jalopy and driving from southeastern Washington to New York. They called themselves Irish gypsies. When my Mom first experienced serious effects from the onset of Alzheimer’s, she had embarked on a solo drive from Washington State to Fort Collins, Colorado, against our advice, to attend her fiftieth college reunion. She never made it. Sometimes the road delivers bad news. Sometimes we never return.
I suppose road trips involve a question we are looking to answer. Possibly we haven’t a clue what the question is yet, let alone the answer. Jules and Vincent approached this artfully in this philosophical dialog over breakfast in Tarantino’s brilliant Pulp Fiction:
So if you’re quitting the life, what’ll you do?
That’s what I’ve been sitting here contemplating. First, I’m gonna deliver this case to Marsellus. Then, basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.
What do you mean, walk the earth?
You know, like Caine in “KUNG FU.” Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
How long do you intend to walk the earth?
Until God puts me where he want me to be.
What if he never does?
If it takes forever, I’ll wait forever.
So you decided to be a bum?
I’ll just be Jules, Vincent – no more, no less.
No Jules, you’re gonna be like those pieces of shit out there who beg for change. They walk around like a bunch of fuckin’ zombies, they sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away, and dogs piss on ’em. They got a word for ’em, they’re called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that’s what you’re gonna be – a fuckin’ bum!
Look my friend, this is just where me and you differ –
– what happened was peculiar – no doubt about it – but it wasn’t water into wine.
All shapes and sizes, Vince.
Stop fuckin’ talkin’ like that!
If you find my answers frightening, Vincent, you should cease askin’ scary questions.
Ahhh. Jules. Ever the sophist. But he’s right: If you don’t want the answer, stay the hell home.
So, this summer, I plan to venture out. Unlike Paul and Arty, I won’t so much be looking for America. America has shown up in terrifying Halloween costumes this year and like Vincent, I’m not sure I want that particular answer just now. I’m not sure I want to know who’s beneath that Reagan or Darth Vader mask.
Instead, I will be looking for my land, my people and my past.
I am a creature of the west. Standing here on the 105th west meridian at over 7,000 feet, facing south I turn to the right and I recognize my country. Looking left, not so much. I love to visit the south and the east coast, but I am a foreigner there. I come from the deserts and the big mountains, long rivers and endless skies. Empty and dry are what home should feel like. Humid and cloying conjure mosquitoes and malaria. My vision is calibrated for distance. “The hundred-mile stare.” The eastern forests that blanket the rolling hills and quaint, curvy old roads of New England frankly freak me right the hell out. I could never live in a place where it looks like Thanksgiving all year. Or Martha Stewart’s house.
From Colorado, I’ll wander the two-lane blacktop back roads through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, my Jeep loaded with a lean camp kit, guitar, notebooks, Nikon, my zafu, Jim Harrison, Faulkner and Graham Greene. I’ll relish the solitude and solo camping wherever I can find a spot. Coffee in the morning as the sun comes up, a cup of Barolo and a fire in the evening, being careful to remember which state I am in during the “relaxation hour”.
In Washington I will re-connect with friends and family, then hug the raggedy left-most coast through Washington, Oregon and northern California, taking as long as I want to appreciate the edge of the land and our natural and historical connections to China and Japan. I’ll slip into the city Herb Caen dubbed “Baghdad by the Bay” for more time with kids and grandkids and friends new and old. To be sure I will visit the church of Chad Robertson, otherwise known as Tartine Bakery, at 600 Guerrero in the Mission District, to pay my respects and purchase a loaf or two in order to remind myself how far I still have to go as a baker.
I regard the San Francisco Bay Area as the place of our reckoning as a nation, our final stand where we European imperialists had to turn back ‘round and realize we had finally run out of “out there”. Gatsby’s green light. It turned red when we hit the coast. I’m still waiting for us to absorb this “lesson in limits” the Japanese and Europeans seem to have easily grasped.
The Jeep will want to continue south, as the going is always easier in that direction, isn’t it, this notion being a leftover from grade school geography and the charming but misguided cultural chauvinism that posits an absurd “up” and a “down” on a ball spinning in infinite, directionless space, and that we must surely be on top. But I swear, I can feel it. North is a slog. South is free-wheeling.
California Highway 1 through Big Sur needs nothing said from me. What could I add? I’ll take a few days to wind down the coast, paying due respect to one of my culture’s seminal outposts for writers, rounders, visionary reprobates and revolutionaries: the truly inspired and the utterly delusional. I’ll ponder where Henry Miller falls on that continuum as a roll past where his cabin stood.
In the early seventies, having abandoned scholarship for the road, I hitch-hiked from Washington to Southern California a few times. One of those trips was with my road buddy Roger, and we were both convinced there was something called a “universe” and that if our hearts were sufficiently pure, it would indeed look after us. We intended to test that theory with our bodies. So we left Bellingham with chump change between us, heading to LA for two weeks. We made it, had epic adventures, met a mystical but murderous ex-con claiming to know Sirhan Sirhan personally and returned safely in two pieces. I am convinced the universe could not have given half a shit about two scraggly hippies. But never try telling us that in 1973.
Later that year, I did the same trip again, this time solo and “for good” I thought. My mother–who was liberal with us beyond our ability to appreciate then—dropped me off on US 395 outside Kennewick, Washington, with my surplus backpack, she on her way to teach the first day of a new term at a local public school. This time I had fifteen bucks. It took several days to get to LA, but the freedom I felt was both therapy and addiction. I stayed in Southern California twenty-six years. So I will visit again, the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara (a four-time home) and Los Angeles (twice). Super Rica Taqueria on Milpas in Santa Barbara, Pink’s dogs at Melrose and La Brea, and Tommy’s chili burgers at Beverly and Rampart will be go-to destinations for both temporary indigestion and spiritual connection. Zen Center of Los Angeles was a home for a few years, at 9th and Normandie, and I will venture into the urban canyons of Koreatown to visit. Who knows, maybe by now the 18th Street gangsters will have gone into real estate. I worked a year or more on Sunset Strip in 1973 and ’74 and every day I walked past J. Ward Productions. I plan to drive by to see if the plaster statue of Bullwinkle and Rocket J. Squirrel remain. LA is a tough mistress, but I have a tactile and visceral relationship to much of the west side that endures after so many years.
In 1978, I heard Dick Dorworth say that Nevada and the Great Basin Desert are to coastal California what Tibet is to Nepal. That always stuck with me. I expanded this “Tibetan” area to include Arizona, Utah and the western portions of New Mexico and Colorado. This “Big Red Empty” in the belly of the west is a stronghold of mystery, myth and story for my imagination. Camping in the desert under star-speckled skies, I slow down and get drawn into the moment, waiting for nothing to happen. If I wait long enough and remain still, surely nothing does happen. I’ll take most of a week to cross over and head home.
Someone asked me, “What do you hope to gain from this trip?”
“Not a thing” I said. “Not a damned thing.”
Like Paul wrote:
“He’s a poor boy
Empty as a pocket
Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose”