Traveling through the Rockies right now on the train, there's a gold-auburn reddish haze glazing through the top half of these shrubs like a halo. Transparent, hazy. Their bottom half dry wood. The sky is mist.
I am here in the Rockies. Last leg of my journey almost. I keep feeling the ending. The ending. Streams, mountain streams rushing. Huge carved faces of rock, boulders.
Telephone poles standing up like sentries, sentries of telephone communication in the wilderness. Broken railroad ties litter the ground near the train tracks. Mountains, rounded. This is all Colorado. The very colors of earth amaze me. The red, rich red, brown, tan hues all on the same mountainside, the different colors of the grass, next to each other. Light red, green, brown...yellow.... And I've been photographing this part of the trip in black and white. Horses are grazing on plains. This must be what excited Kerouac. The West. Horses grazing.
I'm beginning to think that maybe zen is the right religion for me, acceptance. Acceptance of whatever is. However you are.
We're on the other side of the Rockies now. Cattle spread out, tiny dots across the landscape. As we go by, I watch them looking so peaceful, contented, so unaware of McDonalds. It's green in this valley and hills.... And I'm thinking about the code again, how do you crack the code?
Went by a white horse peein' in a field. The mountain here tips off in a butte with ridges, like what I saw in New Mexico. Small hills at its base look like little temples. Earlier in the day, when the sky was clear, a cloud looked like a face painted in the sky. Now it's all overcast. I don't know what time it is. But it feels like late afternoon. Grand Junction's coming up in ten minutes.
There's a sense of freedom that you get when you head for the road. And so? So what? Scenery unfolding before you like a movie...reeling, reeling in landscapes, reeling in picture-pretty scenes--foliage, flowers, hills, sky, clouds. Stopping in cities where you don't know your way, where you don't know a soul. Is it really all it's cracked up to be? Or is it just a way of getting away from boredom with the day-to-day? You can go anywhere, do anything. When you don't have any money, that's not really true. And yet, is there something cosmic that happens to your consciousness? That expands it as far as the sky under which you're moving? As far as the land that spreads out...as far as you can see. Changing and changing and changing before Habit, Pattern and Rut have a chance to settle in.
Sundown's approaching, turning the hills in the distance into dark shapes, streaking the land, the flat plains spread out in front of me in shadow. The sky is clear again. Small blots of clouds suspended at interval. More cows. Raw country. Raw untamed country? Or just raw unspoiled country.
Let me put it this way: if Allison was a tree, she'd be a fir. Me--I'd be a magnolia. Two species that can't even grow in the same climate and yet here we were stuck in the same car. "Your itinerary dominates this entire trip," she complained our third day out. We sat in the car, maps spread out to the gills, on the edge of the Hopi reservation. Someone had told me Hopis would let you camp there, right on their land. It was something I'd been looking forward to, only now I saw it was not to be. Allison was right. One week before setting out, I discovered my professor expected me to stop in each of the cities Kerouac details in his book: New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and L.A. What could I say? Since the trip was initially predicated on my bringing back a thesis about On The Road, I didn't feel I could argue that going to the same cities Kerouac did is an unreasonable idea. Train passenger Stephen Parker-- "That's Stephen Parker, with a P-H."--explains that he, too, belongs to the tribe of those influenced to go On The Road. One of his friends noted that even his letters started sounding like Kerouac. "It was Ken Kesey who was basically the one that--they were saying Ken Kesey, I'm pretty sure it was Ken Kesey--they were saying he modeled Dean Moriarty after him," he tells me. "It's in the book called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." He shares some of his own, rather lurid, On The Road experiences which I , apparently the tamer traveler of the two, have so far managed to avoid...like, for instance, getting mugged in Chicago.
Stephen: He comes up behind me and sticks a knife up at my ribs, says, "Give me your money."
I say, "I really don't have much, but if you want it all you have to do ask."
He's like, "Well, give it to me, man."
I pull out up my wallet and I open it up and he ripped my money out and then he took off running, you know.... I start walking down the street, thinking, "Fuck that!" I was really mad and I bump into this other guy, and he says, "You're down?" And he's a guy in a tie and everything and he said, "What are you doing down here anyway in this area?" and I'm saying, "I'm not the one wearing a tie." I had a beard and all that.
I'm like, "What are you doing here?"
He's like, "This is how I get home. But I lived here for a long time. I lived downtown for a while." He worked at the Mercantile Exchange trading German marks, and he was only, like, twenty five if he was a day. So him and all his friends said, "Do you want to check out Chicago? We'll show you around." And they were all just different characters. Like one guy, he had a maid service company or something. But he had this goatee and these wild clothes.... He took me to, like, eight or nine different places that night. I got bombed out of my skull.
I spent the night on the couch in their apartment and the next morning I woke up looking around the room and saying, "Where am I?" This nice apartment, and they took me down to this place to eat and I was so hungover, you know? I couldn't do what he does. He took me there and they're, like, "What's the matter?
We were rockin'! We were having a good time!"and they were just gulping down food. They're like, "Go for it. You've got to scarf up, we're going to do this again tonight, right?" And I ...I couldn't even drink orange juice. I couldn't eat my toast or nothin', and they're just, like, "Come on, come on! You gotta get into this."
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.... All my life I'd had white ambitions; that was why I'd abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley. I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, the occasional dusky knee of some mysterious sensual gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. ...I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.
Stephen: I got mugged in New Orleans because I went with a guy that I met in the French Quarter standing outside, looking through the dark. He comes over and starts talking to me.... He's Keith, a trucker from Jackson, Mississippi on vacation and he's got his rig... "I'll take you on a tour." I said, "After the riots, you think it would be safe for me to go in there with you people?"2
"If anyone messes with you I'll fight to my death."
I said, "Alright," and we went walking down--it was the worst area of town. We were walking along and there was glass littered all over the street, people driving these bombed-out looking cars. We got in this bar and it was all black guys, I was the only white. And they gave me this litmus test for whether or not they were going to accept me.
They start asking, "So, what kind of music do you like?" And the girl behind the bar says, "Come over here and pick your selection," and she was all happy because I picked the right one. So she's out there and she's dancing and she's big and fat, and she says,"Come over here and dance with me! Come get over here, just shake your hips. Just do this." And by the end of the night she was my best friend. We were walking along, me and him and her, we were walking along. We were right across the street from the projects, and this guy comes out and introduces himself as Mike. He goes, "Come here. I want to talk to you." And I went with him about ten yards away. I had about two dollars in change in my pocket and they got that, and they got my pocket knife. And Keith breaks free and he's rushing at these guys. And he asks, "Are you okay?"
I was, like, "Yeah."
"How much did they get?"
And I say, "Two dollars...." Crazy things.
Sometime in the morning, maybe around eight. Is that white sand or snow that I am seeing? It looks like we're getting ready to pass into another mountain range. We're in Nevada, shortly out of Lovelock. There's a breech in the side of the mountain, a strip of white running horizontally like a rib that's been pulled out, leaving a hollow cavity. The hilltops have this smooth velvety quality like the mountains of Georgia O'Keefe, like thumbs that have been bent downward so that only the smooth underside shows. A white truck races across the highway. Only vehicle in sight. And now I'm back in the West. Returning home. Blood dirt in the side of the mountain. Tawny lion colors, and the arroyo between us and it. Smooth sand and clumps of green, here and there, like leopard spots, with bigger and bigger spaces in between.
As you pass through here you can see the cowboys on their horses, you can just picture it, the days of the old West. Sandy brown. Nothin' for miles. White sand. Snow sand. Brown islands with green clumps on them poking up their heads here and there. A dry riverbed, now green, bright green with the grass growing in it. Snakes through the spotted leopard terrain. A lone bird flying. There's an eye in the side of this pink cliff face. It looks like a hawk eye, an eagle eye. The third eye? It watches as we pass.
I find myself listening to an engaging conversation struck up between two white women passengers in the row behind me. I am traveling alone; I want to join in. The one nearest to me, Jeannette, sits in the seat directly behind mine. When I express wistfulness at seeing some of the most beautiful countryside through the windows of a train, from where I cannot photograph it, she tells me otherwise. "Just hold your camera right up against the glass, pressed tight against it. You can get a picture that way." She assures me the pictures will not turn out blurry if I do as she instructs. She's a redhead from Portland, in her early to mid- twenties, an artist--sculptor--by training who supports herself by working in a Portland hotel. It is, she informs me and the other woman, known far and wide for its wonderful library from which guests can check out any variety of books.
The other woman is a few years older. She has straight brown hair and is of sleeker build than Jeanette, slimmer and taller. The train is bringing her home to Sonoma (or was it Napa?) in Northern California's picturesque wine country. She's an earthy, outdoor type. Earned a good living straight out of college by going into geology, so now she can afford a sabbatical from working to grant herself a period for reflection, for reassessing what direction she wants her life to take. Later, in the Lounge Car, I find myself sitting next to her as I take in the whizzing-by view. She now tells me, in confidential tones, that really the purpose of this trip she's returning from is a relationship--with a man. Maybe the confidential tones are my imagination. Or maybe they're in response to the fact that Jeannette is not only a lesbian, but an intensely politicized lesbian (the purpose of her trip was the national march on Washington for gay rights). As it is, by the time I detrain in San Jose for conveyance-by-bus to San Francisco, I sense quite clearly that Jeannette has grown to find me someone she wants nothing to do with. Have I made some sort of homosexually-related faux pas?
Somehow, I feel that is has something to do with the fact that she is gay and I am not. Before our brief friendship goes awry, however, Jeannette, upon learning the purpose of my own trip, emphatically suggests that I read Having Everything Right by Kim Stafford ("That's K-I-M S-T-A-F-F-O-R-D"), a collection of essays on the significance of place (could it possibly hold within it the kernel of academic justification for my cross country ghost chase?) I never did wind up investigating it. Following her earlier suggestion, by the way, produced a succession of disappointing black and white blurs on Kodak paper. Of course, it's entirely possible that I was not following instructions properly.
Jeannette says I should read Natalie Goldberg's latest book called, Long Quiet Highway. The mountain in front of me now is a sculpture. Molded, shadowed, textured. There is a signature on what we pass by, the stories of the land. The train rocks me to sleep like a baby. Shouldn't've had those pancakes, though. Now we're heading into the kind of mountains that I'm used to. Mountains so soft and sensuous. Looking, you want to reach right out and touch them. I've been seeing a lot of hawks this trip. One just flew by the train. Part of me thinks it's the same hawk. One of the things I'm noticing is that as soon as I start a thought about an observation all of a sudden, it right before my eyes transforms and my words become irrelevent or inappropriate or passe. Another observation is the way that traveling in the train has made me contemplate space and time. And how...time is evolving and being transported within the train. That I'm in a different space inside this train. I'm in a different time, inside this train.
Lavender flowers close to the ground against brown dirt, red bush, pale orange leaves, dead leaves, green leaves. Dried pale, almost-white tree trunks bending, leaning.... More of my steel people holding up the lines. Something about traveling makes my mind free to wander too. When you're home it gets crowded out with lists of things you've got to do. A violent strip of tar, rock quarry. We cross a steel bridge. More lavender flowers. Big blue sky. Billboard country, land of telephone lines. Yellow flowers. We're on the underside of a highway, now entering into the manmade road barricades, cement block patterns. We have just arrived in Sparks, Nevada. A homely town, of telephone lines. Strip mining, it looks like. Reno in ten minutes.
Snow-topped mountains in the distance. I will forever be noticing 76 stations.3 I eat a deformed Sucrets. There's no mailbox in this little town. Telephone lines stretch from a pole in the shape of a star. And I 'm still seeing crosses. Crosses, everywhere. A telephone pole colliding into the side of the hill. Resting on its elbow. A bird couple flies by. Telephone pole sinking behind the ridge. A single bird trails us. And telephone poles leading off on more distant hills. Faraway. Teetering tottering leaning telephone poles. A pathway of snow in the furthest peak. Life emerges from the gravel. Waterway snakes along beside the river, or stream. Fallen dead trees rest on their children, the saplings coming up. The hills are softer now, careening gently into the valley. The peaks are so high that they're above the treeline. One of my peeves with Allison, I think, is her need to know. I get uncomfortable around people who need to be knowledgeable, that their knowledge becomes a badge or something. Maybe I'm one of them. It's easy to get that way, I think. You want to be the wise one, the one who knows. But I also want to be the child, the one who learns, the one who's innocent, the one who's open.
Snow in the mountains we're coming up on. Wood pines skirting around mountaintops, thick. People talk about the majesty of the great Northwest. Pines everywhere. But the pine is not my tree. I'll take the magnolia of the old South, any day. The lush, sweeping magnolia. Of more vivid and velvety green. Magnolias are lazier. Pines are upright, stolid, stately, dignified. The magnolia is embracing.
Dead telephone pole lying by the side of the road. Tears falling over rocks. I have traveled to the source of the tears, the tear. I want to give birth to the hawk of my spirit.
Sunrise on the side of a house. Hotel rooms, one dollar? We're in Truckee, "homey Truckee." Stars. Stars on the steel tower. Feathers fall around you and show you which way to go. Neil Young sings into my ears through my Sony walkman.
Life is a waterfall of moments, all rushing past. We go under an old wooden bridge. When you emerge from the tunnel, the brightness hurts your eyes. The snow is so big and fluffy I want to plop down and make angels in it with my arms and legs. A woman's face in the snow. It was a man's profile I saw earlier on that cloud. Father Sky, Mother Earth? Seas of pines on one side, a wall of snow on the other. We're in the Sierra Nevadas now. And the sun is shining and the sky is clear. Well, not clear. A watery blue. Blurred by a thin overlay of clouds, thin, thin, thin clouds. A bright yellow Tonka toy-like truck drives on the highway a mile below. The shadows and reflections are moving. The rocky side of the mountain looks like raw flesh. Perhaps it is, cut away to make room for these rail tracks.
White flowers. Shimmering metallic rock. Soft blades of grass. Listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Tree-topped valley stretches out to my left, to the south. Soft blades of grass, meadow on my right, to the north. Telephone lines, telephone lines.
Well, I know I'm back in Calfornia. People are invading my space. Blossoming plants and bushes--I know the names of none. I'm from the city. Purple flowers, yellow flowers. White flowers. Purple flowers. Yellow flowers. Purple flowers.
We pass a '90s tract housing condominium complex and all I can think about--we are in California now--is how dried out the lives that go on inside them must be.4 Just looking out them makes me feel...land drought. I'm back in California, I'm back to listening to rock 'n roll.
On page 59 of On The Road, Kerouac says, "I suddenly realized I was in California. Warm palmy air, air you can kiss, and palms along the storied Sacramento River on a superhighway. Into the hills, up, down. And suddenly the vast expanse of bay, it was just before dawn, with the sleepy lights of Frisco festooned across." Well, there aren't any palm trees. We're closing in on Sacramento and this little, uh, poetic license of his. Passing by a feed lot, Neonazi symbol graffitied on a bridge. The scenic stuff is gone, rest of my trip is going to be developed California real estate. Okay, okay, there are a few palms, but it's nothing like Southern California. The land is a brilliant emerald green, brighter than I've seen anywhere so far. It seems all the rivers that I've passed are the color of mud. Including the Sacramento. The last time I passed through this land was when I still lived in that other world, my other life that I left behind.5 I'm back in California, and I can be an asshole.
Battleships and industrial parks. We're in California. Space and time are beginning to contract again for me. Broken or burned out poles along the shoreline look like people. The hills are green and softly rounded and remind me of a book I read as a child about San Francisco, the San Francisco fog, and how alien and foreign that place had seemed to me then.6 And here we have once again, sea gulls. I'm returning home and I feel it. Pilings from old piers. The train is curving right into the sun.
2 re: L.A. "riots" of the early 1990s.
3 Allison's gas card limited her contributions exclusively to the Spirit of 76.
4 This is not a fair statement, and my sincerest apologies to the people who live there.
5 I was a Yuppie.
6 I did not particularly like this book--being buried in fog was not exactly my idea of a good time in those days. It still isn't, especially if skiing or driving at night. Though, I suppose it wouldn't bother me if I was, say, in London.