Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Behind My Eyes, Beneath My Tongue, It's All Gas Station Coffee.

V. “What the hell is that?” Gina yells as we crest a hill and a form around a pair of large, bleary yellow eyes dips down, takes a few steps away and then reestablishes itself just outside our field of vision. It’s about 10:15 pm and we’ve been driving through these woods in Northern Idaho for almost half an hour. There are no camp sites, no signs, nothing, just darkness, the leaves in the wind spreading shadows before the headlights, miles of gravel road and now some kind of dark hulk with yellow eyes. We left Colorado on a rainy afternoon three days ago. After a stop to see my brother Mike one more time we drove straight up into Laramie, Wyoming and began the college-town tour that has comprised the second half of this trip, the part where I try to find a place so fitting to live that even a less-than-perfect job couldn’t disturb the happiness that would result. Outside of Laramie, it was snowing a kind of cotton fluff. There was enough of the stuff to make it really look like snow. Sitting inside the Taco Bell we watched it constantly falling for about 15 minutes. I began to wonder if it was actually going to accumulate in drifts around town. I imagined a plow truck clearing off a parking lot and kids diving in and out of massive piles of the stuff. But it stopped just after a general dusting. In some places the grass was hoary with it and the pine boughs a little heavier but generally the green of summer remained even as the skies began to darken. The wind quickly carried the fluffy seedlings out into the craggy emptiness of northern Wyoming. We watched them go from the concrete platform of Laramie where there are at least two bars on every block—-a noticeable difference from the general distribution of 3.2 alcohol content beer in Colorado and Utah. Wyoming was not concerned with limiting the people’s consumption of alcohol. We walked around Laramie for a while enjoying the American legacy of laissez faire, rugged individualism and booze. The sky began to darken. It was getting late and there was a storm moving out there somewhere. We decided to move on. We found the car where we had left it. All the accumulated dust had blown off and there were a few spatters of rain on the roof and hood. We had planned on camping outside Laramie, but with the leaden skies, the early hour and the long drive to Montana planned for the next day, we decided to drive north and see if we could find some place to camp closer to the border. At first the rain was a smeared curtain of cloud of the horizon, far off raining in the mountains, but as our road veered around and switch-backed we soon found ourselves driving right into a bruise that was dark in the middle and dirty around the edges and seemed to be spreading and distorting everything around it. It was like a reflection of a mountainscape in one of those old mercury mirrors, spotted with black where the backing has come off, distorted, stretched and pooled. I drove faster, trying to beat the storm before it hit us off. The lightening was nearly breaking up the sky above us, but there was almost no thunder to be heard. It was eerily silent. The car hummed down the road and the earth steadied itself for the coming rains. No one spoke. About 30 miles outside of Casper, we drove through a wall of water. The lights in the distance were instantly reduced to the bleary and menacing light that fulminates from the protrusions of deep sea fish. The town of Casper, flooded as it was looked like a school of Angler Fish, the lights like lures for their sharp mountain teeth.We found the cheapest place in town, settled into our beds and settled into the stuffy and fitful sleep that one finds in any motel. In the morning, we all woke up at once and hurriedly packed, anxious, now that the sun was back, to return to the road, meadow grass and gas station coffee. On the way out of town a restaurant proclaimed that patrons should ‘Enter at their own risk.’ It was an old diner, like the one in which Mikey and I had met each each, years ago and back in Michigan, the kind of place where the waitresses come by your booth and pour coffee into your cup every 3 minutes saying ‘warm up, hon?’ each time. The kind of place with ripped linoleum bathrooms and dusty carpet and sticky walls. The kind of place that still allows smoking—probably one of the last in America. Strangely, it wasn’t the actual act of smoking that appealed to me. Sure, I had a smoke with my coffee after I finished my hashbrowns and toast, but it didn’t give me the same satisfaction I had expected. I wasn’t in this place to write a paper, drink coffee and chain smoke all night. This was a stop on the road; I could’ve easily smoked in the parking lot or in the car. What satisfied me about the place was the smell and the indolence. I had forgotten the way such places smell. It is a smell that populates my childhood. A smell of March of Dimes mints, toothpicks, vinyl, grease, urinal cakes and second-hand smoke. Things that do not necessarily smell good apart, but when put together that smell takes me back to being five years-old and sitting in a Coney Island or a diner with my dad. It’s a smell that I grew up with and it’s gone now. I’ll probably never smell it again. When I went to Boise a few years ago, smoking was still permitted in bars. This is no longer the case. If the law has even penetrated Idaho, Wyoming isn't far behind. One place in Casper, strong as it may be, cannot stem the tides of popular opinion. By the afternoon, we were in Bozeman, Montana. We parked downtown next to something that looked like an old grain silo. Unanimously, we declared our heartfelt appreciation for Bozeman, her cafes, co-op groceries and her friendly people. On Mendenhall, I looked at the homes, the small painted porches, like craft sets and imagined my feet on their boards, my hands on their railings. In that quiet neighborhood, I projected myself up every walkway, onto every porch and through every screen door and then we got into the car and drove away. Outside of Helena, we pulled into the White Earth campground. After the sun went down we cooked beans, bagels and the chilis we bought in Colorado on the fire. We skipped stones into the Canyon Ferry Lake, we smoked cigarettes, drank beers, watched the sun go down and talked about these things like they were new things that each of us was finding for the first time. Look at this chalky rock, this water like midnight blue silk and those silhouette mountains. After dinner, Mikey and I stayed up talking for a while. He and I have crossed the country three times before together by car and have taken innumerable sidetrips here and there across a couple of states. We’ve never had to part midway before. I’d never had to drop him off in Missoula before, but tomorrow he’d shoulder his bag and walk off toward the train yard, back toward the highway, toward the places that transients sleep and I’d have to drive away in my rental car back home, back to my job and my apartment. But for now, we were on this beach and we had time for one more cigarette, one more beer and a little more time to talk about how many stars there must be out there..................................................................................... Gina’s awake first in the morning. It’s cold and sunny, we sit at the picnic table for a while, smelling the smoke in our clothes and trying to shake the beer out of the synapses in our minds. We go down to the river, test the water with our hands and then with our feet. The temperature somehow does not seem as important as the beauty of the water and in a few moments we’re in and gasping for air, the cold water shocking our chests into frail consumptive things that can barely hold any oxygen. From up on the bank, Mikey’s head peers groggily from the tent, and with a few moments he’s knee-deep in the water preparing for his own ablution. West of Helena on the 90 we are looking for the Bear Gulch Road exit so we can find the ghost town of Garnet. There’s something like Bear Mouth Road so we try that. Yeah, there’s a sign there. Garnet Ghost Town, it proclaims. We follow it until the pavement drops out from under us, until the gravel turns into football-sized boulders and until the rutted two-track is hanging about 200 feet above a sheer drop down into a Ponderosa Pine forest. The road climbs and climbs and narrows and begins to appear more tenuous, like something that started out serious but gradually became abstract, something like an homage to the original idea of road. I have to honk at every bend. If a car were to collide with us up here there’d be nothing to crash into but sky and eventually the trees below. Gina and I remember the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia, we talk about it. At first telling Mikey the story to calm our nerves, but as we climb higher there are too many parallels between the experiences. The yelling and the crumbled cars and trucks 100s of feet below, the coca leaves and the rockslides of the road to Rurrenabaque all come back to me as we round a corner and there, blocking our path is a white truck. We slowly negotiate the skirt of a road and each other’s vehicle. I keep telling myself that at least there are trees here. If we fell of the side, they’d stop us before we got too far. Garnet seems to get farther and farther away. The signs that proclaim its existence are like jokes. If there is anything up here, it can’t be more than a few burned-out old sheds and a log that used to be a hitching post---nothing worth coming all this way for. Then there’s a parking lot, with other cars and an RV. “An RV? How the hell did they get that thing up here?” I yell in exasperation. None of the cars in the parking lot are covered with the dust that ours is covered with. They look like they all just shot up here directly from the highway. There was clearly another way to get up to this place. After the road we had traversed, I had not expected to see many people in the ghost town. While I couldn’t say that the place was overrun with curiosity seekers, there were certainly more than a few other people standing around between the general store and the old hotel. It was difficult to experience the ghostly laughter of the past when children were running past me, laughing in the present and asking the exasperated tour director where all the ghosts were. We still managed to get ourselves wrapped up alone in some corner of an old storage room or the miners’ quarters in the hotel. We were able to get away from the pack long enough to hear the wind groan in the rafters and to be slightly startled by the sudden appearance of our reflections in a faded mirror. We took the easy way down from Garnet. It wasn’t as interesting, but I could relax and try to enjoy Mikey’s company before we got into Missoula and had to part ways with him. The end of our trip together came when we went through a small mill town about 10 miles outside Missoula. Going through the mill town we made our last road-trip observation. Here was an unfamiliar place that we would probably never return to. Many of its company-built homes were empty as was the old mill. But they had built a new one and there remained a spark of life in the place. When we drove through and commented on the place our words were not yet strangled with the portentousness of impending departure. It was like the last conversation in the car before you get to the airport. After you get to the airport, you just bumble around and hold your breath. Anything you say is entirely devoid of meaning, phatic speech. We pulled over on Main street in Missoula. Mikey got out and gradually collected his things together. Gina and I stood there silent as he collected himself into a bag, Mikey clothes, Mikey sleeping bag, Mikey beanie. We made a few quips, trying to lighten the mood, but it was 92 and humid as hell in Missoula and our friend was leaving us for an undefined period of time. There wasn’t anything to joke about. Mikey finishes packing his stuff, closes his bag and looks up. This is it. Dammit, why can’t he get on a bus? Why can’t he get dropped off somewhere to stay with someone. I don’t want to leave him in the middle of this unfamiliar city with only vague plans of egress. But we’re adults, I can only offer advice and I can’t even do that very well. “Alright, Mikey, take care of yourself. Take the bus if you need to. Be careful in those trainyards.” He smiled when I was done talking and we embraced. In putting my arms around Mikey, I remembered all the other times I had said goodbye to my friend, each time knowing it would be years before I saw him again, but we always found our way to each other. As we surely would again this time. We drove off, watching Mikey struggle to shoulder his bag. We yelled. He yelled. We honked and then we were around the corner swallowed up by our destination. The backseat felt charged with absence as we got back on the highway. Lightning struck somewhere across the pine-covered mountains. I began to feel homesick for the place in the future where we’d meet. I wanted to rush back home to San Francisco. It felt like the trip was over. All the road that was left would only eventually wend its way onto our block, to our front door. Gina drove and I slumped down in the passenger seat, staring out the window. The mood lifted a little in Coeur d’Alene. The mountains in the Idaho panhandle are some of the most gothic and spired in the country. They are like jagged children’s depictions of mountains, except much darker. We had no definite camping plans—somewhere outside Moscow, Idaho. It looked like there’d be a few places in the area, about 60 miles south of the 90. Surrounded by rolling farm country, we drove south, past the sharp peaks and their dark pine-spiked outlines. It was very dark. The highway was a small local one that was nearly devoid of traffic. Our lonely car rolled through miles of unbroken darkness, tentatively casting its headlights here and there. We only had 60 miles to go, but as it got darker and quieter it began to seem unlikely that we would find a place to camp for the night. If we were to find a state park, they’d probably be closed. If it was some BLM place we’d probably have a hell of a time trying to set up the tent in the dark in some remote clearing 100s of yards from where we had to park the car. I had a place written down in Potlatch, a town which seemed to be moving down the highway. The closer we got to it, the farther the signs proclaimed it to be. It got later and darker and we got more tired. The driving continued. A car came up behind us and tailed me without ever attempting to pass when there was plenty of room. The car’s bright lights distracted and unnerved me. I couldn’t see the driver; there was nothing but light behind me, nothing but darkness and the unknown ahead. I saw a brown forest service sign with a camping icon and decided to make a quick right to check out the spot. The tailing car had dropped back a little and I was secretly relived when he didn’t follow me into the camp ground. About ¼ mile from the road there was an information board. The first camping site in this forest was 7 miles back. OK. 7 miles is a ways back, but It looks open. Let’s check it out. The road was more like a tunnel through dense and dark forest. The bark of the trees looked shoe-polish black, the leaves more yellow than green but bright somehow even in the darkness. Heat lightening flashed in the sky, but we could only see it when we rounded a curve and looked down into miles of sky in the interstices between the trees. We were up in a mountain, we could see the faraway lights of scattered towns and then the forest would swallow us again and there’d be nothing be nothing but trees and the glint of their golden leaves in the dark. The forest road seemed to go on forever. Was there even a campground out here? In 5 miles of driving we hadn’t seen anything but one trailhead and a turnout that looked like it could accommodate a single parked car, nothing more. As we went further into the darkness, it was difficult to imagine that anything could come from such a stark place. I found myself wanting to turn back. It seemed unlikely that there would be any place to camp down this endless road. We crest a hill and arrive at the beginning of the story. The darkness, the bleary yellow eyes, the dark, hulking shapes, it’s all there waiting for us at the top of this little hill. “What the hell is that?” Gina yells. I break the car, dust flies up and we stare ahead, looking into the yellow smears of eyes that are looking back into us. I say nothing hoping that some aspect of these terrifying, unfamiliar shapes will betray something familiar to me. Nothing. I keep watching, ‘tree’ my mind suddenly associates. ‘That one partially matches the definition for tree.’ The idea that these things are yellow-eyed trees does nothing to calm me down. It upsets me even more. I continue to stare until my mind makes the leap between branches and antlers, huge antlers, but antlers. I edge the car forward to cast the light a little further. “These are moose.” At the same time that I make the mental connection, I tell Gina out loud. Slowly the car begins rolling again; the rocks and gravel crunching emptily. Seven miles down the road we come to a small turn out. There’s no sign for a campground, no evidence of one, except a truck parked here. It’s empty. I drive off the road into the clearing a little, but it’s so dark I’m afraid to go off the edge of the mountain or get stuck in something. The headlights wash over a picnic table. This must be the camping area. We get out of the car and hurriedly take the tent and the sleeping bags out. Just before we take the tent out of the bag, there’s a sound behind us, a snapping stick and something like a groan. We turn around and over by the truck there’s now a little light, like a small flashlight. It continues to shine for a moment and then goes out suddenly. I hear the groaning sound again. At once, Gina and I are up throwing our stuff into the car, struggling to our seats in the dark and making the decision to get the hell out of this place. I drive the car out of the clearing and back out on the service road, just as I’m about to drive away I notice a man over by the truck. I’m slightly afraid, but I also recognize the fact that I’m being stupid. I push the fear down, put the car in park, get out and call to the man in the dark. At first there’s no answer and then he realizes I’m talking to him. “Camping? Sure, it’s right down there. We’re over here in the picnic area. Not supposed to camp here, but it’s the best spot. Got a fire pit.” “So, we can camp down here?” I ask. “Yeah, that’s all camping over there. We drove all the way to the end of this road. This is the best camping spot.” I wonder about how desolate those other, farther camping spots must’ve been. I’ve camped quite a few places, but I’ve never felt so remote as I did out there in that Idaho forest, but in that remoteness, I slept beautifully. Before I went to sleep, still straining my ears for bears, I thought about Mikey sleeping in some train yard and wondered about the parallel nature of our adventures 300 miles apart, in the dark and listening for things that may or may not be there and then I was asleep. VI. It was the first night I slept all the way through. I woke up shortly after dawn to grey and wet weather. The inside of the tent was damp with our breath and the slightest movement sent the soft shrieks of rubbing nylon through the wet air. Every morning had been like this but this one in the mountains of Idaho was markedly different because every sound was followed by a long tumbling silence. The forest around us had taken all the little noises of the night and turned them into drifting fog. Even the crows were quiet. We drove into Moscow for breakfast and found a spacious but dim café at the center of the drizzly town. I went in to write and Gina went out to buy some stuff for lunch. Traveling does not readily permit one to pick and choose cafés. Early in the morning, no one wants to go to a place with uncomfortable chairs or a crush of people. In the drizzling pacific northwestern fog, it’s a pleasure to find the café equivalent of a roaring fireplace. The café in Moscow was such a place, so much so that it gave me a pleasant impression of the entire town; after spending a few hours in the café, everything else seemed like an extension of its hearth. Moscow is not on an interstate, so we drove through the southern part of the panhandle for a while, before crossing into Washington, dallying back into Idaho and finally firmly and resolutely turning for Walla Walla. It rained most of the morning and the temperature had dropped drastically from the 93 that it had been in Missoula not even two nights earlier. The cattle stood apoplectically in the rainy fields, the radio crackled with static but occasionally coughed out a recipe from a segment on Fresh Air that we were trying to listen to. We stopped at a public bathroom in the middle of nowhere. Someone had drawn the NY logo of the Yankees, underneath it they had written Yakima and Nez Pierce. About 30 miles after Walla Walla, we started down the Columbia River Valley and eventually came into Oregon: the last state of the trip. Old reliable Oregon, the state I feel like I’ve been to more often than California. For the last 7 years, most trips have begun or ended with this state. Instead of passing through it in a day, this time I was hoping to stop and look around a little longer. I had been looking into jobs and dreaming of quiet fog-huddled, river-banked cabins. This time I wanted to go to Oregon and envision my own home amongst the neighborhoods, cafés and used bookstores. I wanted to see if it would work. We got into Portland first, not because I have any plans of living there, but because it’s home to a large diaspora of people I grew up with. Outside of Chicago, there are no other big cities in this country where I can say there is more than one person that I knew before I was sixteen. In Portland, there are two. I also know several other people from college who live in Portland. Portland is Michigan’s capital-in-exile; there’s no way I can pass it without stopping in for a few reminiscences. Both the 84 and the 5 are backed up. Portland is such an antithetical city that I am always surprised by anything urban about it. Traffic, crowds and violence all seem strangely out of place in Portland, though they happen here at nearly the same rate as they would in any other city with a similarly-sized population. We sit in traffic and the rain drizzles down on us. I unroll the window, light my cigarette and my cigarette gets wet. I roll the window back up. Behind me someone honks their horn. We spend 20 minutes a few blocks from our exit. My friends Erik and Sara live in the northeastern part of the city. When we exit the highway, I felt relieved to see that there is nothing much on this side of town, just wide roads, train tracks and some guy walking around in a thawb. Erik and Sara take Gina and I to a karaoke bar a few blocks from where they live. The pronounced David Lynch-feel of the place suddenly skyrockets to an almost impossible degree when a frail old man in a dress stands up and sings Blue Velvet. When the male Isabella Rossellini is done, a girl gets up and does an awkward show tune I don’t recognize. Despite her lackluster performance; it’s hard to stop watching her. I’ve found that to be true of most awkward and arrhythmic experiences. Sara, who is the only one who can actually sing in the place, gets up and does a song, much to the chagrin of everyone who has to follow her. A woman does a heartfelt Just to Be the Next to Be with You and everyone sings along. Including our table because we’ve had a few drinks a piece by this time. After a few more songs, I finally find what I’ve been looking for in the book. I write my name and song title down on the piece of paper. It was tough, I had to decide between With Arms Wide Open and Higher. I waited impatiently through a few more songs and then sauntered out on the floor to sing an entire song through my teeth. Wid arm vidopehh! vidopehh! I started the song with lots of energy but after 30 seconds, I began to feel like the joke was losing its punch. I gestured more grandly and clenched my teeth harder, but somehow, like most jokes, taking it to the microphone had robbed it of its spontaneity. We stayed for a little while longer, long enough so that when we went home we bumped into each other a little and stopped to lie down in particularly soft-looking bushes.............................................................................. I woke up just after six. It was almost pitch dark in the basement where we were sleeping, but a few grey shafts of light sank to the floor. I had a slight headache, felt a little tired, but I was basically fine, despite having had nothing but beer for dinner the night before. Gina and not fared so well. Her stomach was queasy and she felt exhausted. I had other people to see and felt almost anxious about leaving the basement and getting back on the road. We got our stuff together and staggered out to the car while the rest of the house and even the neighborhood was still asleep. VII. I had let Corvallis become the center of the trip. Because I had applied to a job at Oregon State University or OSU, I had let myself get carried away with fantasies of living in this often over-looked Oregon college town. Months before I applied to OSU, I had applied to a fellowship that would take me back out of the country to teach English. When I didn’t hear anything back from the fellowship coordinators, I continued to apply for jobs. The one in Corvallis was the first of these domestic jobs that I felt excited about. The day I submitted my resume for Corvallis, I got a reply from the fellowship team informing me that I had an interview the next day. So for a while, I forgot about Corvallis and went on to thinking about the out-of-country fellowship. The interview went well and the interviewer gave me reason to hope that I’d soon be finding out where I’d be going and that, indeed, things would continue as they had years before when I’d been applying to the Peace Corps. A few days later, I did another interview for the fellowship whereupon I found out that positions were extremely limited and that I had probably significantly less than a 40% chance of actually getting matched to a program. At this point, I turned my attention back to Corvallis and OSU, or at least a domestic job.............................................................................. I was excited to see Corvallis, my imagination had built it up to almost mythic proportions. In this town of about 50,000 in the Willamette Valley, I imagined the amalgamation of all of my favorite places, Arcata, Bozeman, Tbilisi, Aleppo and others would all be evenly balanced here; Corvallis would finally be the perfect comingling of birthplace familiarity with exotic beauty. We got off the highway in Albany and drove 15 miles west toward where Corvallis was framed by fields of mint and trails that spun off into the cascades. When we breached the town, I parked the car, not wanting to cheapen my first impression with stop signs and turn signals. Once the car was stopped, I took a few tentative steps. OK, it looked somewhat ordinary, but places always seemed that way at first. At least I wasn’t getting an overwhelming bad feeling. The first few blocks were almost a mass of cafés and bars with a couple of restaurants squeezed in, all of them interesting, all of them unique. At the end of the street there was a decent-looking skatepark and beyond that the green shoots of new trees and rain-sodden grass. We walked through a residential area and found some interesting places: A pet store in someone’s house, a statue of a crocodile on stilts with a hat and a coat on, a theater that charged one price for students and another, much more expensive price, for 'students of the world' and a coffee roastery with a sign on the door that said ‘Go Away!’ After a long afternoon we sat down in a café to use the internet to search for a campground for the night. I searched listlessly. Sitting there in that twilit café, Corvallis seemed like any other college town to me. It was nice, but I don’t know what I thought was going to make it so special. I could move here and maybe even live here, buy a house here and stay for a long time, but I wasn’t ever going to be as excited about it as I has once been. In many ways, it was just another American town, with its local Thai restaurant and its national chain grocery store, its parks, trees and poured concrete sidewalks. It was pretty, but it wasn’t Walden, nor was it Shangri-La. After we found a campsite on the internet, I opened my e-mail. I didn’t expect much because I had just checked it a few days before and, generally, I don’t get many e-mails. When the page loaded, a couple new of e-mails jumped out at me right away. One was from Mikey, the other was from the fellowship program. I opened the fellowship one first. “Jonathan Maiullo, you have been matched to a program in Asuncion, Paraguay…” “Paraguay?” I mouthed silently, than I looked up at Gina and practically wailed “Paraguay! That’s just like going back to Argentina; it’s practically the same country, at least as far as the climate!” But even while I was complaining about my assignment, I felt invigorated and excited to be going somewhere new. I couldn’t believe that I had been matched to anything. The director had even written to me that she had been very impressed with my dossier. Gina and I sat in the Corvallis café talking about Paraguay for a while, with every sentence, it sounded better. The prospect of living in another country, even one I’ve already been to, excited me as it always has and by the time I got up to throw out my empty cup of coffee, I knew what I was going to do. I thought about all the places we’d been on the trip and the people we’d seen. Even if we were going to move away again, I was glad we had gone to the places we had; I was glad I had seen Corvallis and Montana and Laramie. I was glad I had met my brother in Pueblo and that I had listened to Mikey play his guitar at the edge of the Mojave desert once again. “Mikey, I almost forgot!” I tossed my cup in the trash and went back over to the computer to open Mikey’s e-mail. It was a lengthy summation of the night he spent in Missoula, ducking in and out of the train yard, hiding from searchlights, getting rained on, sleeping on benches, getting soaked by sprinklers and retiring to a 6am laundermat before finally making the decision to take a bus to Minneapolis. It was a load off my mind to read that he’d bought a bus ticket. I knew he was probably a little disappointed, but I knew his adventure would come off soon enough. As would ours and maybe the two would coincide in South America.

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