The Makings of a Book. . .
Out of San Antonio, I was picked up by a rusty, black 15-passenger van loaded with luggage and four strangers who didn’t know each other. Larry, Ashley, Slater, and Jerry — the driver who was picking up everyone he saw on the road until there was no more room. I was the fifth and last eligible contestant.
Jerry was a big guy. An ex-trucker from Michigan with rotted teeth and stringy gray hair. He was ditching his unfaithful wife and home in San Antonio to start a new life in Northern California. He bought all the gas and said he would pass through Albuquerque and over through Las Vegas to get to where he was going. From there, I could easily get to Los Angeles on my own.
Ashley was a bisexual girl with a mermaid mane of curly red hair, shadowy bedroom eyes, and teeth that slanted inwards like a cute, confused rabbit. Her friend, Slater, was a 20-year old gay guy with tan skin who resembled Dave Grohl with the goatee of an ancient Arab wizard. He was a young, handsome, seemingly naive fellow who was forgetting his life of internet and Bank of America. “I want that life never again,” he said. They thrived on the idea of life. They had their whole life in six duffle bags and suitcases and sacks of socks, heading to LA to start a new life like Jerry. “Basically your body will no longer do what your soul wants to do,” said Ashley about living a life you hate.
Larry was a dirty bum who didn’t have a life to change, but just went with the tides. He was a grungy train-hopping kid with a lazy eye, crunched up brows, and burn scars on his arms and legs from when his mother threw bacon grease on him as a child. He carried a pair of clothes and an Army backpack with what appeared to be only a big blanket inside. He was quiet until you talked to him. . . too stoned to speak.
The van could not hold another person or suitcase. It was a mobile dump of luggage, toolboxes, rifles, scuba gear, barbells, trailer hitches, poker chips, halogen work lights, camping chairs, tents, cots, cards, coonskin caps, and two bikes and a generator that hung on the back over the license plate. Plus $3,000 worth of pools sticks in a black gator-skin bag. Jerry was a poker and pool shark.
The van had no seatbelts or AC, and the back doors were blocked by big black bags, so we all had to crawl over all the seats to exit out the front. I had fun after stops to pee or eat, climbing back in through to the back like a monkey in a cave and plopping down into my cubby with a sigh for the road.
It was the greatest ride of my life. Larry relaxed in the passenger seat next to Jerry; Slater and Ashley were in the middle bucket seat; and I was sprawled out over the suitcases in the back. The windows were open, and Texas was yelling through them. I sat back and set my mind on the winds of the west. The Smashing Pumpkins pounded through the luggage jammed against the speakers. It was a loud party. None of us had anywhere to be. We just drove.
10:13am: We passed through Welfare on I-10. Small hills slowly started to emerge. Halfway across Texas.
11:00am: The cacti started sprouting, and the air slowly turned yellow. The crosswinds spit harshly, pushing the van with great vengeance. The trees were still green, only shorter; and the sand looked drier. Jerry tugged us along.
12:15pm: We passed the exit for Del Rio where Ashley and I tied bandanas to our heads to calm our wind-beaten hair. The fat van growled through the hills near nothing. Shrubs screamed for water. Buzzards circled the sky with cocked eyes aimed at prey.
Everyone was getting to know each other, talking over the seats and pushing forward with the road. I, in my cubby, leaned forth with my arms on the seat listening to Ashley and Slater. “We are passionate people,” they said. Extraordinary things came out of their watering mouths.
“I love all the little things people don’t notice. Like counting the freckles on someone’s body,” said Slater. “You have a lot,” he noticed.
“I love watching old people share food with each other,” revealed Ashley.
They were authentic, happy people, hungry and ready for anything in this world, with heads over their heals for what awaited them in LA. “I feel like my body is writing lyrics!” yelled Slater in the wind. He giggled and shyly batted his hand over his eyes.
“Exactly!” yearned Ashley, “But it’s like we can’t quite read them!”
There were times during the ride where they would both would turn around and look at me with big, lustful eyes, curious to know everything I knew. They craved deep conversations and eye contact, and asked me question after question about life through my eyes:
“What’s the saddest you’ve ever been?”
“What do you love to do most in another person’s company?”
“What do you think about regret?”
“What are you scared of?”
Ashley said I had pretty eyes.
As he was driving, Jerry would look back for long moments to tell us stories of his life. “When I was 13 and lived in Oregon, I went deer hunting about every day. One afternoon I came across mountain lion footprints cut out of the snow. Intrigued, I started to follow them, right?” He looked right back at us and drove as straight as an arrow. “The tracks lead through the forest and over the side of a small cliff. I noticed the tracks led down and into the darkness of a cave cut out of the mountain. But only in. There were no tracks coming out. I was scared shitless, kids!” His small blue eyes pierced our own.“I pointed my rifle at the cave. I crept, crept step by step away from the cave until I could no longer see it, then I ran back home.” He turned back to the road and kept trucking. “Thank God the lion never came out. Damn scary for a boy of 13.”
He stayed glued between the road lines. But for a truck driver, he’d tailgate like a maniac. Trailers, trucks, and even wide-loads were so close to the grill of the van that the entire back end of said machinery took over the whole view of the windshield. I just sat back and trusted his skill. Eventually, he’d roar around them and gunned straight for the coast.
We passed through abandoned Texas ghost towns and old trucks rusting in the sun and an oil rigs that had caught on fire. It blazed up in the distance. We all looked at it with interest. Then it was gone. In other small towns, standing in the sand were rusty oil pumpjacks with long necks, dipping their noses into the ground and up again like those plastic Drinking Birds you find on workingmen’s desk. I wanted to pass through El Paso just to see it, but the van cut up 285 before I could say anything– a quicker route out of Texas and into New Mexico.
“The day is turning hot,” I said near Fort Stockton around 3:00pm.
“We could ride into Vegas naked,” said Ashley.
We crossed over into New Mexico at 4:40pm, but the time zone had changed, so it was an hour earlier. In Carlsbad, Jerry insisted on paying our way into the Carlsbad Caverns. We was driving us for free and buying some of our food and drink already, too. We started calling him Uncle.
An elevator (built in 1931 with ten tons of dynamite) took us 750 feet down into the Earth where the air was cold and the ceilings dripped. The caves were massive, the kind of eerie hole where Gollum would live. Everything echoed. It was dramatically lit with white and yellow lights to reveal what was naturally hidden in the darkness of the underworld. Bats slept in caves, scheduled to erupt into the sky at dusk. Bulbus stalagmites jutted out of the floor like columns of bubbling popcorn and soda straws. Thin stalactites hung from the ceiling like icicles and stakes you’d use to attempt the murder of a vampire. The base resembled petrified flows of ribbons and bed sheets. Some looked like cauliflower attached to endless stems which climbed up the walls like snakes. It was all a beautiful mess of stone and what looked like solidified water. Secret coves and dark caves loomed above us. I expected goblins to scuttle from across the puddles and pathways and fairies to flutter around the crown-shaped chandelier drips. We walked about a mile in a loop through the whole ancient den.
Back in the light of day, unexpected rain was pounding the ground. A storm had risen. We darted to the van and roared on down the highway. But, as quickly as it came, the rain ceased. In the distance beyond the world, silent cracks of lightning shuddered down from the sky. We drove away from it all, pushing on.
Jerry turned around and told more stories. “I knew a guy once who bought a whole sheet of acid one day (that’s about 100 hits, you know), and stuck it in his pocket without wrapping it in anything. No plastic bag or tin foil or nothing. And it was such a hot day that the mass amount of the drug soaked into his skin, killing him instantly dead.” He didn’t swerve once.
At 7:40pm, we passed a dump of a place called Pink Slippers Gentleman’s Club in the middle of the New Mexican desert. Only one car was parked in front of it. “They probably still use glory holes,” joked Ashley. We all laughed.
At 7:53pm, the bulbus orange sun saturated the clouds with warmth and slowly dipped into the desert, the final sliver of it vanishing behind a cluster of trailers to the west. What was left were residual purple burns in the sky. . . a violet halo ten times the the size of the sun. It led us on.
The whole drive, Jerry had been talking about aliens. “We gotta go to Roswell! We gotta! I have to see these aliens they speak of there!” Legend has it that Roswell, NM, is a headquarters for extraterrestrials. Locals claim to have witnessed UFOs and martians in the quiet desert town. We rode on through after dark. Everyone was excited. We wanted to find a secret spot in the desert that was rid of light pollution and stare at the big, dark universe alone.
“Let’s get some rum!” screamed Ashley.
So we drove to a liquor store past all the wood carvings and cardboard cutouts of alien visitors in cafe windows and comic books stores to buy a bottle. The lights from the town slowly vanished as we pulled off the highway several miles out. We rumbled over a cattle grate and down an abandoned dirt road to the eerie end. A lightless house sat crookedly below a tree with old trucks and cars parked out front, but no one was home. Ashley was frightened, so Jerry turned the van around. He drove halfway back towards the cattle grate and parked in the middle of nowhere and shut the engine off. There was silence. The wind was cold and faintly howling outside the van, shaking the shrubs and cooling the rattlesnakes. The stars were blazing with alien mystery. The Cheshire Moon stared straight at us with a curled smile. It pointed to the west, directly towards California. The van pointed west, too, the glass and metal glowing in the moonlight.
We all passed the bottle of rum below the night. It warmed our frigid bones. Jerry pulled out a strong MagLight, and we all stood together in a cluster, signaling aliens with intricate movements of the beacon. It shot straight into space — a thick beam of white light like a tractor beam. It almost pulled the visitors to us.
It remained a party. We shared the bottle, sat in the dirt, and talked for hours, getting to know each other even more.
Larry and I stood in the desert away from the van and talked. He told me about his life. He had two kids somewhere and an ex-wife whose parents thought he was scum. He was an old street kid, bumming around the country and finding comfort through drugs and booze and beaches. “I’ve been to San Jose, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, San Francisco, Oceanside, San Marino, Los Angeles, Colorado, Idaho, Bozeman, Kentucky, St Louis, Kansas City. . . all those middle states, man — they’re so cool dude. Fuckin’ Georgia, Florida, all the way up into the Carolinas. . . dude, I’ve been all over the fuckin’ place, man.” He went on and on in slurred speech, happy as the free bum he was, and told me all about train hopping per my request.
Later, I joined Ashley for a romantic picnic of drink on top of the van. We sat in the cold night air, and I pointed out constellations. She asked me to read her poetry. I read out loud in the light of the moon. It shined through her hair, distinguishing each strand like vines. The wind made musical hoots in the mouth of the rum bottle.
Jerry pounded on the roof to signal us it was time to get back on the road. Life was perfect, and I was glad for humans and aliens and our lust for the road.
It was after midnight. As the van pushed on, I noticed the moon grow redder and thicker as it sank into the blackness below the Earth. She grinned wearing lipstick, vanishing before my eyes. I felt like Forrest Gump: I didn’t know where the Earth ended, and the sky began.
Talk petered out, leaving room for the wind to speak again. Some of us tried to rest, but sleep was difficult all cooped up in the van. Jerry stopped at a gas station to try his hand at it. He slept on a pillow that I’d spilt coffee on earlier and woke up two hours later because it was dripping on his knee. But he only needed a couple hours before he was ready to go again. I slept maybe an hour.
Somewhere outside of Albuquerque at 5:00am, we turned into a truck stop. Jerry bought Larry some food. The vast sprinkley spread of lights near the city’s outskirts twinkled and hummed. The soft sun slowly rose above the mountains beyond the glimmer, framing them in a deep orange silhouette with pale blue space inching towards the defeat of the navy sky. I went into the truck stop washroom to wet my face. The reflection revealed my ratty hair and bloodshot eyes that puffed out like I had conjunctivitis.
At 6:00am, the sun reached out to touch all the land. It was rough on the eyes. 900 miles into the ride, the territory turned jagged and red. Telephone poles lined the highway like fences. There was nothing. Until a freight train chugged along parallel to us, 300 yards out below the hills. Larry turned to me from the front seat like an excited dog and continued his talk from the night before, reeling off every fact about trains he’d ever learned in his day.
“There’s your train right there, Leroy. Take a gander. . .” I looked at it. It was long and racing to beat us. “Okay, see here’s what you need to know, dude, listen up: Those there are box cars. See ‘em? They’re my first choice, you know, okay? And there, there’s grainers– that’s a grainer there. Sometimes, you know, you can find a perfect spot in those and just roll along and do whatever the fuck you want, man. Free.”
We all looked out of the window, fascinated by the drunk professor in the front seat.
“And you know what an engine looks like, right? Sure. Right there. See, sometimes, if it’s a long trip, they have lots of engines connected to each other, right, okay? And fuckin. . . the ones in the back, they’re usually empty, kay?. If you can get into one of those, man, you ridin’ first class, man, I’m telling you, dude. I’ve found food, WiFi, and even liquor in them engines, man. It’s crazy!”
He was excited, but not as excited as I was, watching this beast roll through the world as free as a ghost.
“Now, you know already, right, that if you can’t easily count the bolts on the wheels as they turn, it’s going too fast and you’ll kill yourself tryin’a get on, right, yeah? And fuckin’. . . when you want to get off, man, you gotta strap your pack tight around your waist and jump and go, go; and you gotta start sprinting like a lion, man, ‘cause the fuckin’ ground ain’t gunna be movin’ with you, you know. And it ain’t soft ground neither, man, so you gotta book it to prevent crashing y’ass into the ground and breaking yourself. Not to mention getting trapped under the mercy of the tons of steel that you’re on top of, man.”
He went on and on until the train was gone.
At 7:00am, we crossed another time zone into Arizona. The morning was slow and crept along at half time as the sun stole our hours. Unusual humps and hills bloomed out of the earth with no explanation, as if God had dropped the end of a bitten candy bar. . . or stubbed his toe, causing contorted erosion.
In the midst of Navajo Indian territory, everyone decided to go to the Grand Canyon. We kept going, excitedly pushing on and talking, sleepless and wired on coffee and smoke and rum. I felt woozy, and my eyes burned in my head. We were all strung out on no sleep and the residual effects of intoxicants. Jerry looked fine. I felt ill.
He paid our way into Grand Canyon National Park. We drove through the woods along the South Rim. I was the only one who’d seen the canyon before, but I was just as excited as they were, despite my unwellness. Ashley and Slater, who’d never seen the wild west, were infatuated. Their world was expanding and changing with each breath of the wind, each mile we drove. The canyon was opulent with the same green river that had carved the rainbow stone hiding at the bottom in a winding turquoise ribbon. It was like the Earth one day decided to be soft and let water manipulate it for a million years. The canyon was a pale red painting with orange and white and pink layers of earth stacked upon one another in an miraculous sand sculpture.
Jerry shrieked a battle cry that echoed throughout the canyon, vibrating all the souls around. It was endless, then grew silent. A hawk allowed the wind to steer him through the air in effortless flight. The sky was wide and blue.
Ashley and Slater climbed down to a cliff below the rim with a red balloon inside which they crammed two letters of passionate poetry about living a grateful life, and sent it soaring off the cliff and into the wind. They hoped someone would find and open it. Who knows. . .
At another corner of the South Rim, we entered a realm of tourists taking pictures and staring off into the cavity. There was a family there with a young boy, about 6, who was really very excited to be there. “This is the Grand Canyon!” he said. “We’re here at the Grand Canyon! This is it — the Grand Canyon! I’m here with my family, and we’re here at the Grand Canyon! The Grand Canyon! . . . Where is the Hollywood sign?”
Everyone around laughed. “That’s in Los Angeles, Honey,” said his mother, chuckling.
Out of the Canyon, pushing on towards a main highway, I tried my hand at sleep again. My legs were sprawled out over the suitcases on the seat. I tucked my head into my shoulder. I was almost out cold when Jerry slammed on the brakes in a rush. He pulled off the road and into a ditch among the redwood trees.
“There’s a big, dead bull elk down against that fence over there!” he said, fascinated by the sight behind us.
We piled out of the car and walked down. I was last, struggling to stay awake as I stumbled out and down the ditch towards the others. There it was: a dead bull elk with thick antlers covered with khaki velvet fur. I touched them. They were softer than they looked. Its eyes had been eaten out by flies and maggots– only bloody sockets remained. Somehow they stared at me. Coyotes had ripped the flesh from its backside, and in the center of its head was a bloody bullet hole. Jerry suggested it had been hit by a car then shot to end its misery and dragged here off the road. One of its antlers was skinned back, folded over the barbed wire fence at which it lay, revealing rugged bone beneath. The air was thick with the foul stench of rotting meat and rigor mortis. It was strangely beautiful.
We piled back in the van and kept driving. I couldn’t sleep. 4:50pm, Arizona still. I saw the first jagged erections of mountains in the distance through pale pollution of day. It loomed, immovable. The west was getting closer.
At 5:10pm, we cut right up 93N toward the Hoover Dam, 100 miles from Vegas. At 6:17pm, we crossed into Nevada, only the time changed again, deleting an hour from an already slow day. The Dam was huge and industrious, causing an interruption to the empty land that had surrounded us for two days. The sun set softly to the west. . . a gentle golden welcome to the coast that was soon to come.
Written in North Hollywood, CA 2012