Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bottled in Bond (California-Colorado)

The computer now seems like a rude intrusion on this scene. Outside Barstow California there is a primitive campsite on the edge of the Mojave Desert. At night, it’s silent except for the small yip of fox cubs in the distance and the wind rubbing branches of chaparral. It’s not a place very germane to computer activity. Other than my screen, the only other light source is the moon and the dull coruscations of our dying fire. Getting the cheapest rental car available left us hoping shuttle buses all morning around the Oakland airport complex. Eventually we were dropped off at something that resembled an on-site construction office that had been pitched into a parking lot full of mid-sized white cars. They gave us a Chevy Malibu, white of course, that had Utah plates and XM radio. We spent the day being passed on the highways of eastern California by much more savvy and local drivers. I’m sure at least one of them zoomed past cursing the ineptitude of the Mormons that were clearly lost on the way back to their folky and homespun state. The XM radio is just something to screw around with. You don’t actually listen to those things, but rather toggle threw their channels like a TV, convinced that the next channel is always playing something better than what you’re presently listening to. It didn’t get better until we got out of the stripmall grange of Bakersfield and put on a CD. We went up into the hills and the 104 degree air cooled to 85 in minutes. We stopped in a small town and stood outside the gas station breathing in the new and strange California air that is curiously lacking the tang of eucalyptus and watching the sun draw the yucca shadows out in the gravelly soil before us. Back on the road to Barstow the sun began to set in a garnet sky. Every time the sun sets in the desert it is a western noir moment; the kind of thing that can only be appreciated properly with a cigarette burning and a complete cessation of all conversation. Luckily, all of us understood this intuitively and the only sound in the car was the crackling of the small fires that we held between our fingers. The campsite took us a while to find, which was disconcerting given our very vague and handwritten directions. All the directions we have for this trip are of such a quality so it seemed like a failure to find the campsite could only betoken future such failures. The street signs could barely be seen from the rural highway we were on. Even with my brights on I had to slow down to read them before passing on. The road twisted across the desert floor and alongside the embankment were armloads of white crosses, each with a date and nothing more. The fading light made them appear even more sepulchral. We found this place at the end of a dirt road and a day of bad gas station coffee (like brackish swamp water that someone had extinguished several matches in) and family meals of Mexican fast food. It was a great day, as Mikey said “an auspicious beginning” to our trip. Now, everyone has gone to bed and I am the only one out here beside the dying fire and the jagged outline of the hills in the moonlight. I have intruded on this idyllic scene with the bright computer display long enough. Time to put the fire out and go to bed. II. “I travel all over the central valley taking pictures,” the man in the ghost town bar says to us and nods to the area around us. I can’t quite call the clapboard, sun-dried place we were in a ghost town bar, but I find that nothing else fits. There was nothing else in the town of Yermo anyway, just a Marine base and the original Del Taco. All this was just east of Barstow. The man snaps another picture of us and continues. “I’ve been in Barstow for a few days now; I came over here today to shoot some pictures of this monastery.” “What kind of monastery?” I can’t help but to ask. “Russian?” “No, they’re Coptic.” Outside of Barstow there’s a Coptic monastery, apparently somewhat new. There’s very little else out there, except, of course, the original Del Taco. Earlier that day, I awoke to the sun already blaring through the tent. I hadn’t slept well, and was still not sleeping well. I lie there awhile trying to get comfortable when I heard the tent unzip. I assumed Mikey had decided to get up and explore, but when I finally opened my eyes, Miley was lying on the other side of the tent sound asleep. I decided to get up and make good on my plan to look for snakes basking in the early morning sun on the concrete slab outside the bathrooms. Before I got up I checked my phone. It was 6:30. As I made my way groggily across the campsite, I noticed Gina, staggering in her slip up a little hillock not too far away. In my sleep-deprived state, I thought maybe she was sleepwalking. The way she had her arms out and the awkward, staggering way she walked seemed to indicate she wasn’t completely awake if at all. Then I noticed she wasn’t wearing any shoes. We waved to each other when she got to the top and noticed me making my way to the bathrooms. There weren’t any snakes, but it was already hot enough. I wasn’t going to go back to sleep. Gina and I walked up to the crest of one of the hills and barely made it down. The surface of the desert crags was a gravelly mixture of stones and sand that was difficult to walk up but almost impossible to walk down. On a downward slope, one’s feet immediately began to slip, ditto hands or butt or anything other bodily means of anchoring one’s self. We managed to make it down, but with too much excitement before any morning coffee. I hastened to the fire pit to start brewing some. Lately, I have begun wishing for more patience. While I’m more in control of my emotions that I was as a child or a teenager, I still have embarrassing flare ups, especially where anger is concerned. I started a fire in the fire pit, let it die down to coals and put the coffee percolator over them. It was a long wait but the coffee eventually began to boil. I was about to reach down and take it, but the weight redistribution as the water boiled into the upper part and became coffee upset the percolator and it tipped over. “Shit!” I yelled in profound disappointment. Gina tried to say something but I was already up gesturing in despair and agony over a cup of coffee. I hate acting this way over something so trivial as a cup of coffee, but when you don’t sleep well and almost roll down a gravelly slope first thing in the morning; sometimes these things happen. After we had packed up camp, we drove back over the rutted gravel roads into Barstow. I found a Del Taco for breakfast and Gina and Mikey were kind enough to tolerate a meal there at such an early hour. We ate and conversed with the waitress who attended to us with matronly care. Through the driving directions of another man eating in the dining room she encouraged us to visit the site of the original Del Taco 8 miles north of town; the dining room patron encouraged us to visit one of the few remaining bars in the country were one could order a bottle of booze and sit at the counter, open it up and drink it right there. While it was a little early in the day for this experience, we went over there anyway. We must’ve been too eager-looking however, as Lee, the bartender, told us that we couldn’t just drink the pint of whiskey we’d just ordered in his store. Recovering from my chagrin, we ordered the bottle to go and talked to the photographer. Everywhere we stopped the people were friendly and garrulous, despite the desert heat, but the consensus was that 110 wasn’t that hot, usually, they said, it was about 120 this time of year. By noon we had left southern California; we stopped in Vegas, just so Gina could say she’d been there. After solemnity of the desert and the silent camping grounds, Vegas looked like a monument to despair. It seems reasonable for broken roads, battered mailboxes and abandoned homes to endure 115 degree heat. They maintain a certain dignity, having become part of the landscape, adopting its dun and ochre hues and allowing the sand to efface their individuality. By comparison, a city like Las Vegas looks ridiculous. I pull off the 15 to drive down the strip a little, thinking maybe we’ll park and get a look at the Bellagio fountains, drop a quarter into a slot machine and then get back to the desert. The place is packed. On the strip, the traffic moves like San Francisco traffic on a Monday. The only difference is about 50 degrees of heat. Everywhere hordes of pink and glistening people engulf a spectacle, drain it of all meaning and move on. A man is bleeding and handcuffed on the street; the crowd swallows the spectacle even as it passes by. Fans spray mist of outdoor bar patrons, neon sputters in the daylight, useless like a candle in the sun and everyone gets what they want. It’s a city for babies; a modern-day Roman coliseum. This part of Nevada slides down between Arizona, Utah and California like a knife’s edge, to call it a panhandle would be a euphemism. There’s nothing else out here. By the Arizona border, another one of those resort centers that ring the state on all sides. I can’t decide if it’s deceptive to outline your desert state with resorts, clatter and lights or just necessary. There’s a little rain falling outside St. George in Utah. With its red bluffs and green lawns St. George’s groomed, semi-suburban feel is a welcome change after all the desert ruins. The first campground had signs up at the entryway proclaiming swimmer’s itch to be rampant in the area. Luckily, there was another place, also with a lake, not far away and we spent the evening lolling in greenish blue waters cupped by a corona of red and yellow rock and oxidized copper skies. III. A morning swim is a great way to wake up, especially after making coffee in the fire has exhausted your patience again. Luckily, I didn’t spill any this morning, but starting a fire, letting it burn down to coals and then worrying whether the coals are hot enough to make the percolator boil is a trial in patience first thing in the morning. Afterward, already sweating in the morning sun, I drank my small cup of perfect coffee, reeking of smoke. I washed what I could out in the lake and bounded around for a while before we decided to break camp and go get breakfast in St. George. Big Rock Candy Mountain is a real place, not too far from where HWY 15 meets HWY 70 in the middle of Utah. After driving for about 4 hours, we drove about 5 miles down a two lane highway to come to a hulk of yellow-grey stone beset by wooden stores, each with large signs that proclaimed the cheesy bulk above them to indeed be Big Rock Candy Mountain. There would’ve been nothing there and I still would’ve enjoyed being in a place with a name that’s more adjective than noun. After Big Rock Candy Mountain, we began to drift. Silence enveloped the car and the landscape began to take on the look of a never ending calculation. Each boulder, chimney rock and striation meant a hatch mark on some great terrestrial ledger. We tried to comprehend it and couldn’t begin to, but it seemed profane to even talk in such a place older even than Ur. At the end of Utah were we expected a ghost town we found someone’s rage in a landscape of broken glass, snarled metal and bashed dry wall. A few signs proclaimed that some of the ruins belonged to someone. I did not envy these people. We stood in their environment no longer than a few minutes before feeling like a psychic weight and fallen into our stomachs like a stone into a well. We were relieved of our burden almost as soon as we left but we kept a flower and part of a bottle, mementos from our visit to Job. Even in the farthest western point of Colorado the desert has been given a name and placed beyond a fence. In Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Southern California it drifts into people’s doorways and lies at the end of roads like a great and patient snake. It comes invisibly into towns, into homes and curls up in the hearts of the people living there. “Stay,” say the sands. “Sleep,” say the Murano-blue skies; everything in the desert must mix the light with the dark. There are only extremes. In Colorado, we pay too much to camp near the highway in a place of gravel, starlings and E. Coli in the lake. We go down to the Colorado river, swim for a while and then sit on its banks, automatically facing west. IV On the way to Denver we follow the river down in its green gorges. The rocks are wet with a misting rain and the steel tresses of construction glint alongside the road. It’s a short drive today, the shortest since we began the trip: only half-way across the state, but the geographic change is immense. After four days, we leave the gold and sienna desert behind and climb into the summer verdigris of the Rocky Mountains. I haven’t been to Denver in seven years. The last time I was here, was the first time I traveled west of the Mississippi. I was 24 years old and was nursing fecund dreams of moving to California. We had returned from Portland, driven through the night to find ourselves in Denver. While my companions went off during the day to snowboard, I wandered around Denver’s gloaming winter lights and wooden-paneled cafés writing letters and reconsidering my impending move to Detroit for graduate school. When I returned to Michigan a few weeks later, I met with Mikey, elaborated on my letters efforts to describe San Francisco. Within a month we were making out plans to move out of the Midwest that I have hence only returned to for visits. This trip to Denver was to be of similar magnitude in terms of life-altering events. Since I was a child I have heard fleeting mention of a person named Joe. This Joe was someone who appeared in a few pictures around the house but was seldom discussed. When I got to the point in my life where I began to ask questions about the people in our family portraits, I was never given a straight answer about Joe. Eventually, I satisfied myself with the idea that he was just some kind of familiar aberration, like so many other members of my Dad’s family that he was reluctant to talk much about. When I was living in Armenia, my dad once made an allusion to Joe over the phone. He mentioned that he had spoken to my brother on the phone. I wondered aloud why he should consider this newsworthy information, given that he spoke with my brother Mike about once a week on the phone. “No, not Mike, your other brother Joe.” I was 27 years old and it was the first time that I had been told that I had another brother. Since that conversation, I have often wondered about my other brother, but given our advanced ages, I decided that it really wouldn’t be an issue worth pursuing. He was grown up with a family, living in Pueblo, Colorado and probably had very little interest in meeting another of his Dad’s kids, the same dad that he had lived his entire life without. I had always had a hard time relating to my other brother, Mike in regards to our dad. For Mike, my dad was someone he saw once or twice a year. For me he was the guy who was always there, the father figure who I had grown up with and couldn’t imagine leaving. When we were younger, I know this put a rift between Mike and I. We had different lives and different concepts of the person we both called dad. For Joe, I assumed the situation would be similar, even if we were both grown up enough to no longer be overly concerned with such things. I’m standing on Colfax in Denver, calling Joe on the phone. “Hello? Is this Joe?” I ask. “Yeah, who’s this?” a no nonsense voice responds. Well, hmm, how do I go about this? Does he know who I am? Should I just say it? Well, yeah, there’s nothing else I can say. “Hi, Joe, this is your brother Jonathan. What are you doing tomorrow?” The next afternoon, Gina and I pull up behind, Mike and his wife Amber into a suburban driveway at the end of a cul-de-sac street. There’s a lawn mower sitting outside. The job is nearly finished. Whoever was doing it must’ve just gone inside and will return probably before we get to the front door. The four of us are making our way up the driveway when the door opens. A larger guy comes out and proceeds directly over to the lawnmower. I’m uncertain if he’s going to acknowledge us and find myself wondering if it was such a good idea to come here after all. This is a guy who’s got things to do and probably doesn’t want his two brothers coming over, taking up his time and drinking all his beers on his day off. “Hey, guys!” Joe shouts from the lawnmower when he notices us making our way up the driveway. He doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed; in fact, he seems genuinely happy to see us, happy to see me even though, until this point, we could’ve walked past each other in the grocery store and never known that we were related, let alone brothers. Joe ushers us into his house and pops open beers. We sit on the couch and begin our own attempts to say who we are and what it means that we are brothers, albeit in a very indirect style that to the outside listener would probably just sound like three people having a typical Sunday afternoon conversation. These are the kinds of events that get built up too much in advance, rendering the actual event almost unremarkable. At least that is usually the case, but in this first meeting with my brother, I couldn’t help but to find myself actually feeling very content to have finally gathered my two errant siblings together and found them such convivial people. Perhaps the most astounding thing was the sight of my dad in each of my brother’s faces. When they spoke, I watched the way their arms gestured or the way their eyebrows bunched. In each action, each unconscious gesture, I could see my dad. Even more bizarrely, I could see myself. Despite the fact that my brothers and I had grown up thousands of miles from each other, we shared certain innate characteristics, not just in appearance, but in mien and perspective. Talking to them was like talking to my dad, or my grandfather or even, at certain point in the conversation, to myself. When it came time to leave Joe asked that we take a picture together. Suddenly with a kind of solemnity that seemed to suggest that the entire point of the day’s meeting was contained in this moment we stood together, entwined our arms and looked up for the cameras that Gina and their wives were training on us. A historic moment, but casually taken, we tried to look serious but each one of us wears a slight smirk, the result of the first time we had ever stood together. Hopefully, it won’t be the last.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Shrinking Pacific

We talk about leaving all the time. I come home and say “God. I’m sick of this place,” and then, still wiping the sweat off my forehead from the bike ride back home, I’ll go sit down on the corner to smoke a cigarette in an attempt to pacify myself. Back inside, we have dinner and try to discuss our dissatisfaction, but it’s very hard to do in such a beautiful place, and makes one feel like the worst kind of curmudgeon. It’s hard to complain about San Francisco because it’s the prettiest city anyone has ever seen. People come from Nebraskas and Baltimores and think ‘my God! I didn’t know such beauty could exist in a city.” The rolling hills, the ocean on one side, the bay on the other, the spectral bridges lancing out into the fog and the dense neighborhoods, Little Saigon, Chinatown, Little Italy and the Mission all representing different cultures that have maintained their identities enough to appear different from each other, most importantly, to smell different from each other. It’s a unique arraignment to San Francisco that one can almost identify where one neighborhood borders another by the smell. Chinatown is mothballs, fortune cookie dough and mushrooms. Little Russia, is stale pirozhki oil and dried sturgeon. Each neighborhood smell is preserved by the damp pacific air that preserves the smells and then blows them out into the ocean at night. Every morning they are recreated afresh. All the highest points of San Francisco are parks; walk up a steep street and it turns into a park. There’s not going to be anyone up there, just trees clinging to the sandy soil, moss, fog and the glittering lights of the city reflected in the ocean below. These parks aren’t just an homage to the natural world the way so many urban parks are. They are light intrusions of the Pacific coastal forest where coyotes trot in the twilight and heavy ravens brood over the day. The parks fit into the pluralistic system of disparate neighborhoods. They have their own residents, advocates and distinct smells. I have always loved this city. I had never given it a thought when I first arrived here about eight years ago. My friends and I had finished college and had decided to take a roadtrip west. I was applying to graduate schools in places like Colorado and New Mexico, so it seemed like a good idea to go and see these places before committing to move to them. We drove down to Memphis the first night and then continued west from there. Alternately sleeping in the car, drinking copious amounts of coffee and only stopping in each place for an hour or so to stretch and find a Taco Bell, it took us less than three days to get from Michigan to Albuquerque. I liked the roads and the wide open spaces of Western America, but I was invariably disappointed by the towns. Boulder was too expensive and it didn’t look like there was much to do besides hang out in breweries; everything was a brewery in Boulder. I liked Albuquerque but the isolation of the surrounding desert weighed down on it. The place offered a charming melancholy to the visitor and possibly chronic depression to the resident. Phoenix was empty; even in February its million inhabitants stayed inside with their air conditioners on. The night before we got to San Francisco, we slept in our van in the hills south of LA. I looked down into the city, much like the view from Mulholland Drive. The lights coruscated through the valleys like rivers rippling over different sized rocks. I watched the scene for about 10 minutes before going back to the van and falling asleep in the driver’s seat, exhausted. After San Francisco, we went to Portland, Denver and a few other places, but I had already been seduced. I remember the cafes and bars we visited, but I don’t remember the cities, not in the way that I remembered San Francisco. After seeing San Francisco, there wasn’t room for anything else. I spent the rest of the trip writing letters about the two days I had been there. Sometimes, when I go down Davisadero, I can see myself, sitting outside a café, frantically scribbling a letter with misspelled street names and strings of clichés. I wrote to everyone, telling them about this El Dorado I didn’t even know I had been looking for. I’m sure many of the people that live here, most of them weren’t born here, have similar stories. All of them stood on some eucalyptus-scented hill watching the sun fall into the Pacific, thinking ‘yeah, this is happiness,’ and then drove back to their homes, only staying long enough to pack up their stuff and say goodbye. I lived in San Francisco for a year before I moved away to attend graduate school. When I left, I did so reluctantly. I was restless. I wanted to see the world, but I didn’t want to leave San Fran. I told myself that, barring another terrible earthquake, that it would always be there, and I could go back any time I wanted. For years, I carried the place with me in form of a keychain, the sight of which, while living abroad, actually caused me to sigh out loud on several occasions. I never tried to come back here. After I finished graduate school, I moved out of the country again. When I decided to come back, I had nowhere to go, my girlfriend’s extended family lives out in the East Bay, they offered us a place of our own for a while and it seemed like as good a place as any; we both knew people in the area, and after living in so many unfamiliar places, I was excited to return to a place and people I knew. ............................................................................................................ After dinner, we take a walk on the outskirts of Golden Gate Park, which is less than a block from where we live. As we walk, I talk about the past and how it’s shaped my perception of the future. I talk about all the roadtrips that I have taken between here and Michigan and the small towns along the way where I talked to someone in a gas station. I talk about living in such a small town, what it would be like to know your neighbors and feel like you were working toward a common goal, rather than competing with each other for everything. I a couple of days, I’m going to leave San Francisco and revisit all the places that I had passed through before when I was too enamored with the Golden Gate Bridge and the smell of eucalyptus to notice them. I do not wish to find another El Dorado; the problem with living in a fairytale is that it feels like it belongs to everyone and no one. I will never really be a part of San Francisco, though it has long been a part of me. No. I want to find a place that looks simple; I think I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can create enough of my own entertainment. I just need the space to do it and at least one place that’s got a decent burrito.