Joshua Tree Diary: The First Days

I looked in the mirror late this morning and decided I would need a haircut sometime in the next few weeks.  Trouble is, we’re a few miles from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base (the largest U.S. military base in the world, I’m told) and nearly all the haircut places offer a “military cut”.  Well, I really don’t want to have my head shaved at this point in my life, so I have to find a salon that can make a guy like me look like a guy like me.

So, here we are…in Joshua Tree, California.  The high desert, the edge of the Mojave, the northern edge of the National Park.  Our home is very well appointed with a fenced in backyard and cable TV.  We’re quite pleased with the rental we’ve chosen for the month of December.

[Part of our rental]

[Our private backyard}

I’ve struggled to come up with a catchy title to the blogs that I will be posting for the next month (we’re here only for December before we head to Santa Barbara for a few days of hiking and beach walking).  I’m calling this series of blogs The Joshua Tree Diary.  Lame? Maybe, but you haven’t been through what I’ve been through lately.

We arrived from Los Angeles on December 1 in a rented Nissan.  We passed the Joshua Tree Inn where Gram Parsons OD’d (see an earlier post about that on my website…it’s called “Room 8”).

We seemed to have arrived during a cool spell.  It got below freezing last night and may do so again tonight.  We were treated to the clear desert sky and the rising of the Super Moon last night.

[The Super Moon on Dec. 3. Sorry, but the iPhone doesn’t do well with this kind of photo]

Okay, so how did we spend our first days here?  We’ll I got here running a slight fever and a cough that would freak out most circus animals.  My throat felt like I had hosted a demolition derby and my chest felt like I inhaled  a quart of vanilla yogurt…I was not well.

We did manage to get to the National Park Visitor Center where I intended to purchase a Golden Pass (we left our other one home).  This allows seniors free admission to the Parks.  Two years ago when we purchased one at Devil’s Tower National Park, the cost for this lifetime pass was $10.00.  Now they charge $80.00!  And, these parks are ours anyway, we pays taxes…don’t get me started.

Next stop was getting a temporary visitors card at the local library.  I gladly paid $10.00 even though I will only be using it until December 31.  I’m not carrying anymore “book” books.  They are heavy and bulky.  I’ll give my copy of David Copperfield to a woman who runs a tiny used bookstore a few miles away along Route 62, towards Twentynine Palms.

I bought a copy of the Hi-Desert Star…couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times anywhere.  An ad caught my eye and it was then I realized that we were living amidst a culture that is quite different from Upstate New York.  I hope this guy finds his goal and makes off for the hills and gets rich from a lost mine (there are many out here).

[Ad from the Hi-Desert Star}

How am I feeling today?  I think I turned the corner.  I don’t think it’s hit or miss anymore.  I don’t think it’s touch and go.  I don’t feeling like I’m going to die out here…and become just another statistic.  I felt well enough to drag myself and Mariam to the Joshua Tree Saloon to sip a glass of Lagunitas.

[Joshua Tree Bar & Grill]

All of the above happened in the first four days.  We haven’t set foot in the Park yet.  Maybe on Wednesday we’ll hike the Skull Rock Trail.  It’s short and the ‘skull rock’ boulder is looking more and more like me.

Having said all that, this is what we’ve left behind:

[An Adirondack scene. Pretty, but no shoveling]

Right now, I’ll take the desert and deal with sand in my shoes and not frost on my finger tips.

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The Forever Road Turns East

KansasTreeRutsTripLarned

[Near Fort Lenard, Kansas]

I didn’t write the following paragraph, but I wish to the eternal sky that I did…

Look out from the mountains edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert’s face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky. The light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring into unknown distances, and the mountain-ranges are looming dimly into unknown heights, Warm drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across the valleys; the yellow sands have shifted into a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has gone down with the sun. Mystery–that haunting sense of the unknown–is all that remains. It is time we should say good-night–perhaps a long good-night–to the desert.

These are the words of John C. Van Dyke in his 1901 book, The Desert.  It is part of an anthology that I am reading, The New Desert Reader, edited by Peter Wild.  An excellent collections of historical and recent reflections on the mystique aura that is the Great American Desert.  I read this while I am tucked snugly into the R-pod, after several hundred miles of driving on the endless road…the Forever Road.

VermillionCliffs

[The Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona]

As the trip odometer on the Ford clicked over another tenth of a mile at 44.4 miles from Dodge City, Kansas, I pulled the last of the iced coffee through the straw.  The morning sun had been glaring down on and warming up my icy brew for about thirty minutes.  The sun is strong here in the Great Plains–the prairie–now that spring is approaching and even my Starbucks thermal mug, decorated with a few stickers (I had removed the “Don’t Mess With Texas” label…too big!) couldn’t keep ice being ice for very long.

I stared at the road ahead of me.  We’ve been traveling since mid-October.  The road seems endless.  The road seems to go on forever.  The road is infinite for those who choose to drive it–like the surface of a basketball is infinite to an ant crawling on its surface.  One could go on until The Rapture (expected by some to occur some Thursday afternoon in a few months).

In a few days we will be crossing the Mississippi River.  “Big Muddy” separates the west from the east.  Behind us–can I still see them in the rear-view mirror?–are the waterless gulches and salt flats of Death Valley, the Full Moon of Joshua Tree National Park, the Buttes of Monument Valley, the shockingly painted Vermillion Cliffs of northern Arizona, the terrifying beauty of the canyon of the Virgin River in Zion National Park and the vast and forbidding mother of deserts, the Mojave.

MojaveHighway

[The road into the Mojave from Twenty-nine Palms, CA]

HurricaneUtahButte

[Near Hurricane, Utah]

MonumentValley

[Monument Valley, Utah]

4Corners

[Mariam and me at Four Corners]

It’s all behind us now.  And, I am sad at the thought that it may be a few years before I return, return to try to comprehend the comfort I took in those emptiest of places.  Collectively, the locations we visited in the southwest, attract me like a colossal lodestone.

As one who was born and raised in the northeast part of America, I was used to green in the summer, scarlet leaves in the fall and the white of snow during the shortest days of the year.  It shocked me to realize that there was more grass in my backyard in Owego, New York, than in 10,000 acres of the Nevada desert.

WatchmanWalk

[Hiking the Watchman Trail, Zion National Park, Utah]

At night, the sky was visible from horizon to horizon–half my field of vision–and filled with more stars than I have ever seen (with a few exceptions).

I spent this day trying to find something to fix my eye on.  Is it an exaggeration to say that the Kansas prairie stretches so far that you can discern the curvature of the earth?  Maybe.  Yes, I tried to find something to focus on except the endless road, the white or yellow lines, and the sky.

I drove through the Wolf Creek Pass and paused at the Continental Divide at approximately 10,000 feet.  Out here, the tallest structures I can see–and I can see them twenty miles before I speed past them–are grain silos.

There were times, in the last few weeks, I felt that I could have been walking on the surface of Mars–the red desert–or sitting on a lunar landscape.  Now, with each passing mile, the backyards, malls, fast-food outlets and football fields are beginning to look more and more familiar.

The prairie is quite fascinating in itself, but the deserts of California and Nevada and Arizona have the bonus of being ringed by mountains.  I’ve read that when the Plains Indians were forced to move to reservations in Arkansas and Nebraska, they nearly went mad from the monotony of a featureless landscape.  It’s been said that these once noble masters of the deserts took to climbing trees to see–just see–as far as their eye could allow.  But, no mountains were in view.

I’m going home.  One of the first things I intend to do is watch the 1936 film, The Garden of Allah, with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich.  In it, the Boyer character, suffering a crisis of faith, goes to the Sahara to search his soul for truth and meaning.  There he finds Dietrich, but that’s another story.  It’s what Count Anteoni, says to Boyer that sticks in my mind:

“A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert.”

I’m going home.  It’s time to say good-bye to the barren and arid earth of the Great Empty.  But, to me, those places seem as interesting and limitless in their beauty as any Garden of Eden or Garden of Allah.

I like a place where a man can swing his arms…

TucsonTreeSunset

[Sunset in Arizona]

A Last Look At The North Country: A Journey For The Right Hemisphere

Colby

This is a good-bye of sorts.  I drove into Saranac Lake this afternoon to pick up a few last-minute goodies, I see that the recent rains have taken so much of the brilliant foliage that, a few days ago, dazzled your eye against the azure sky.

I heard the word “snow” in a recent conversation.  I drive past Lake Colby and I take a picture.  I stop near a lonely cemetery on a hill and take a picture of Whiteface.  A grey-haired gentleman sporting a pony-tail was gazing through his camera that was set up on a tripod.

“A few minutes ago there was a double rainbow,” he said to me as I pulled my iPhone out of my jacket pocket.  “There might be another soon.”

“Wish I had the time to wait,” I said as I snapped my photo and got back into my car.  The Rolling Stones were in my CD player.  The song was: Wild Horses.

“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away…” sang Mick.

I almost felt sorry to be leaving this place.  This contradictory country with its beautiful, bug-less Autumns and it’s breezy quiet afternoons.  And, its thumb-numbing cold in January with typical temperatures of -28 F.  It’s absolute silence when the snow falls.  It’s loneliness when friends have gone home–away from their summer places.

As I write this at 9:40 pm on October 14, we are packing the final items into our R-pod.  The sky is starry–the afternoon showers are gone.  I can see my breath as I stand in the yard, in the dark, in the chill and quiet of our last night in the North Country.  In the morning, our friends from the other end of the loop of our road, Garondah Road, will see us off as we head south–and away from the coming winter.  Darcy and Judy have helped us with so many things this summer.  We didn’t climb the mountains we said we would, but we biked and hiked in new places.  In a few days, they will begin their 13-hour drive back home in Camp Dennison, Ohio.  Yes, they live in one of the fly over states, but they are fine people anyway.

Our first stop is Jersey City RV Park near Liberty State Park.  Mariam will be attending a few meetings as we pass a week in NYC.  Part of the time we will be ensconced in a hotel just a block from Macy’s.  We’ll have dinner with my son, Brian and his girl friend, Kristin.  Then it’s back to the RV park in Jersey to pick up the r-Pod and head for the sunny south.  Our destination? Fort Myers, Florida.  We will be settled there until the end of the year.  Then, having had my fill of sand, sun, golf and shopping malls, we will work our way along the Gulf Coast to points west.

I will be stopping in my college town in Northeast Louisiana–first to show Mariam where I spent my late teens and then to lay flowers at a grave of someone who was and is very important to me.  It’s been over forty years since I last saw my friend–and that’s a long time to wait to put flowers beside his headstone.

Steve, I’ll be by soon.

Where to after that?  Perhaps as far as Palm Springs–maybe even Death Valley.  But I have chosen to use this time to give my right brain a kick-start.  I’m not going on this trip without coming back without improving something in my creative hemisphere.  I’ve decided to leave my banjo behind because that will require practice and I’m ready to accept the fact that I may never have the ability to make music.  But, I will have plenty of sketch pads, charcoal pencils and some watercolors with me.  I have stated my terms to myself.  I will not try to analyze anything–I will observe and draw and write.  And I will read.  I have a library of books that I’ve planned to read for decades.  Can you believe I haven’t read “David Copperfield” yet?  It’s on my shelf.

I also have a strange destination to aim for.  It’s a town in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park.  It’s called Zzyzx.

There is a real story waiting for me there.  I hope you will follow my blogs as I make my way to this odd little place.

Yes, it’s a good-bye of sorts–but we’ll be back.  We’ll be back like the muds of Spring and the mosquitoes of June and the sparkling waters of Rainbow Lake.

Up here in the North Country.

Whiteface

 

Lone Ranger and Tonto United in California Civil Ceremony

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Media representatives, Native American leaders, cultural historians, gay rights activists and many cowboys rejoiced yesterday afternoon when two long-time partners against crime were united in a civil ceremony on a dude ranch outside Oxnard, California.  The marriage was held in strict privacy with only several hundred invited guests in attendance.  Reporters hiding in the hills and using high-powered spotter scopes were able to identify only a few attendees.  Among them were Johnny Depp, Bob Seger, Bono, Harvey Fierstein and Doris Day.  Bob Dylan’s Wedding Song was voiced by Lady Ga Ga.  Because of strong dust storms in the area, GaGa was forced to lip-sync the song.  The only tape available was a 1982 rendition by Liza Minnelli.

“Because of their on again, off again relationship, we had doubts the ceremony would ever really become a reality,” said Chief Running Water of the Potawatomi nation.  Tonto is a member of that particular tribe, but as a part-time actor, he has often been confused with playing a Mohawk of Ontario, Canada.

Neither Tonto or the Lone Ranger were available for comment.  Moments after the vows were exchanged, the two boarded a Tomahawk helicopter and were flown to a spa somewhere near Twenty-nine Palms.

Several friends close to the pair agreed to speak to this reporter on condition of anonymity.

“We can confirm the two exchanged silver bullets instead of rings during the ceremony,” said one part-time actor from Van Nuys.  “Silver is considered to be rare and precious, like justice, law and order, not to mention a human life…we think it was better than the old-fashioned ring-thing because when you’re out riding the range, rings can chafe the finger as you grip the reins.  We’re so totally into the bullet thing.  We think it’ll be a big deal in unions of this nature in the future.”

Asked about the unusual names the happy couple have used with each other over the years, one friend chimed in: “Well, we know that Tonto translates from the Spanish into a less than kind word, so sometimes the Ranger uses Toro, meaning “bull”.

I asked about the term “Ke-mo say-bee” and was greeted by blank stares by those standing nearby.  “We think it means faithful one or something like that.”

I pressed on because that was my job.

“How did the Ranger become known as The Lone Ranger.”

“It seems that he was a member of a party of six Texas Rangers who were tricked into an ambush by “Butch” Cavendish.  All the rangers were thought to have been killed.  This Native American rode by and found that one of them was still alive…barely.  He nursed him back to health.  The two recognized each other immediately.  The ranger had rescued the Native American when they were children.”

Apparently, the bond was made then and there and they have rarely been separated since.

“What’s with the mask?” I asked, blindly.  I thought I had pushed these guys enough, but I kept on.

“Well, to honor his brother, who was leading the group of rangers, the survivor fashioned a mask out of his older brothers vest.  He never revealed his identity until later in life to his Aunt Frisby.”

“It was the mask that apparently intrigued Tonto enough to keep hanging around the ranger,” someone from the back said.

“Aunt Frisby?” I repeated.

“That’s right.  Say, I think you’ve asked too many questions.  Why don’t you get the hell off the driveway before I call Security?”

I back off.  I’m no hero.  I had enough for the story.

So, there you have it, folks.  Two strange men, always alone, always doing the right thing to help the helpless, finally seal their fate.

Right about now, they’re probably in a whirlpool spa somewhere on the edge of the Mohave Desert.

Word has it that they are going to open a landscape decorating business somewhere near Pismo Beach.

“Hi Ho to them,”  I say.

 

 

 

Gabby Hayes and the Mouseketeers? I Don’t Think So

One of my childhood playmates was a pathological liar.  The things he told me went well beyond fibs and bragging that is so common among boys of about eleven years of age.  I mean I once told my girlfriend that if she closed her eyes, I would take her to the far side of the moon.

She didn’t go for it.

When I was in sixth grade, I told the nun that my dog, King, ate my homework.  She looked bored and told me that if King didn’t cough it up by the next morning, I was gong to get an “F”.

I talked to King about the situation I was in and he just looked at me with those big dog eyes.  They were brown, but so are most eyes on a dog, except a husky, of course.  Their eyes are different colors.  I tried to tell my girlfriend that huskies have one blue eye and one brown eye.

She slapped me for acting like she was stupid and I got the “F” from the nun.

I learned early on that it didn’t necessarily work out well when you lie.

But, my playmate never picked up on this fact.  And, (all joking aside) his compulsive prevarications would get him in trouble with me…and years later, with the law.  So, here’s how it all played out:

One summer afternoon in 1958, my friend, Clyde (not his real name, but that doesn’t make me a liar) and I were climbing the apple tree in my back yard.  He lived several houses away, on Front Street, in Owego, NY.  It was while we sat on the third branch that faced the garage my dad built in about 1954 that he told me the first blatant lie that I can recall.  We were all, the whole neighbor, the entire town, all of America was caught in the grip of The Mickey Mouse Club.  I think it was aired on Sunday evenings, but I may be wrong…I’m not lying about it!  My brother joined the Club and got a real cap with real mouse ears.  This was the real thing, not some knock-off, the actual cap with ears.  My brother used the money he made mowing lawns to pay the $1.00 dues.  I mowed lawns too, but I figured that Harvey’s Grocery needed my money more than Disney Studios.  After all, back then five cents would get you a Mars bar or a Snickers.  That’s not to say that I didn’t want a mouse-ears cap too.  It’s just my mother wouldn’t give me the money.

But I digress.

All of us in the neighbor had our favorite mouseketeers.  There was cute little Karen and Cubby (he still plays the drums).  There was Jimmy Dodd, the father figure.  Roy was the big mooseketeer.  There was Cheryl, Tommy, Larry, Sherry, Eileen, Lonnie, Doreen, Jay-Jay and Bobby (who went on to be a professional dancer on the Lawrence Welk Show).  There were others.  But, (oh, be still my beating heart), there was also the one and only Annette.  ALL, repeat ALL the boys were hopelessly in love with Annette.  I would guess it was because she was the most developed…talent on the show.

Clyde and I sat talking about the show.  It was on that warm afternoon that he told me he had lived in California for several years.  He also told me that he walked Doreen home from the studios every day.

MouseketeersI looked at him, wanting to believe him, but even my eleven year old brain told me that it was highly unlikely that one of the famous mouseketeers would be walking home from Disney Studios with a “regular’ guy like Clyde.  I did want to believe him.

But, about a half-hour later, he told me that Gabby Hayes gave him a pair of cowboy boots.  It was then that I dropped my willing suspension of disbelief.

“I don’t think so.” I said.  “Can you show them to me?”

“Umm, we left them in California when we moved here,” he said, after some quick thinking.

After that more amazing tales came forth.  Clyde told me his father had won the RCAF Medal of Honor.  Clyde, you see, was originally from Canada.

The tales continued and I continued to shelve them in a box called “Outright Fabrications.”

Then Clyde moved back to California and I didn’t hear from him again, until…

Flash forward to high school.  It’s the early 1960’s.  From out of nowhere, Clyde shows up for a visit in Owego.  I think he stayed with a friend of mine.  By this time he was a blonde surfer dude.  And because he was a blonde surfer dude, he had the girls of OFA all wondering about him and wanting to get to know him.

I was jealous.  My main female interests were now taken with this blond guy from the west coast.  Things got out of hand when a jealous boyfriend of one the girls wanted to take Clyde outside during a sock hop at the gym.  It nearly came down to a fist fight until I broke it up and my friend and I removed Clyde from the scene.  He left for California two days later.

Good riddance, I thought, when I heard he had gone home.  Now the girls could get back on track to adoring us home boys.

Flash forward to the mid-1970’s.  I’m a full-time teacher living and working in the Scranton area.  I miss my hometown so I find lame excuses to spend a weekend in Owego at my parents’ house.  My mother asks if I remember Clyde.  I tell her that I certainly do.  Well, she says, he called a few times in the last few days and wants to stop by for a quick visit.  I told her that if he called again, I would like to have a talk with him.

A week later, I make the turn into our driveway at Broken Arm Curve and there’s a car I don’t recognize parked on our lawn.  I see it has California plates.  There’s a blonde guy standing beside the car.  It’s Clyde.  We chat about old times.  I don’t bring up the lies he told me for years…what’s the point?  I do notice that he looks nervous and keeps checking the cars on the street.  About thirty minutes later, my older brother pulls in the driveway.  He teaches in Virginia and is stopping for a brief visit with us before he heads to the Adirondacks where he loves to canoe and camp.  But, before he can get out of his car, Clyde says a quick good-bye to me and in a moment, he’s gone.

Strange, I thought, but then I remember how strange Clyde can be.

Flash forward to the late 1970’s.  I’m sitting in our dining room eating a speedie from John’s Grocery on North Avenue.  I’m drinking a Coors Gold.  The phone rings.  I answer it and a woman’s voice asks if it’s Pat Egan.  I said yes.

“You might not remember me, but my name is Judy Smith Jones (not her real name).  I used to play in your backyard when I was a child.  I’m Clyde’s young sister. I’m calling from California.”

“Yes, I remember you,” I said, very surprised to hear her after so many years.

“Have you seen Clyde?” she asked without any more comment.

“Not in a few years, Judy.  I saw him maybe three or four years ago.  He stopped by for a brief visit.”

“Pat, are you sure?  Has he tried to call you?

“Not that I know of.”

“Well, it may come as no secret to you, but Clyde has difficulty telling the truth about a lot of things.”

“Yeah, I guessed as much when he told me about Gabby Hayes.”

“Well, he’s told some people some very serious lies…and now he’s missing.  The police in at least two states out here are looking for him.  We think he may have headed back to see you and be in Owego again.”

“What the hell did he say, Judy?”

“I can’t tell you…now.  But if you hear from him in any way, please call me.  We’re very worried.  He’s in over his head.”

“Of course, I will, Judy.”  She gave me her phone number and hung up.

That’s the last I heard about Clyde.  I often wonder what happened to him.  What could he have done or said to get into so much trouble?  Why was he possibly heading in my direction…coming to Owego?

I’ve reflected on this many times since that afternoon.  I began to feel pity for this poor soul, who, even as a boy, had to build up a false life, with false friends, to make him look better.  Or to feel better about himself.  Or to create a world where he was somebody important.

As his childhood friend and playmate, he didn’t need to tell tall tales to do this.  I really liked him anyway.  He didn’t need to walk a mouseketeer home or take cowboy boots from Gabby Hayes.

I’m sure that, as a young man, his life would have been interesting enough without building a wall of lies around himself.  A wall that would end up being his own personal prison.

Gabby_hayes

This is Gabby Hayes.  It is not my playmate who told lies.

 

 

Travels 23: I Meet Jade, The Young Hobo

You who live on the road, must have a code that you can live by.

Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Teach Your Children”

We were just west of Tulsa.  We needed gas.  Mariam needed the Ladies Room and I needed to get out of the car and see if my right leg could actually function again…as a limb of mine, that is.  There was the beginning of a disconnect between my right hip, thigh and calf and the rest of my body.  They were more intimate with the gas pedal than with the rest of my skeleton.

I also needed a baked potato.  At least that’s what I planned to have as a side for dinner this evening.  I had eyed a sign for Wendy’s, which, unlike Burgher King, carries a variety of them, mostly dripping with Velveeta.

As we pulled off I-44, I did some serious multi-tasking.  Professional multitaskers like attorneys, brain surgeons and private school parents would have been proud of me.  I was keeping an eye on the left fender of the R-Pod to make sure it didn’t come in contact with the Jersey barriers on the exit ramp.  My eyes flicked to the right rear-view mirror to ensure that there was no Oakie trying to pass me on the right.  I was flying New York State plates and you never knew what the locals would think of the Yank exiting on the west side of Tulsa.  I was also checking the left mirror for signs of a semi that had plans on using the same exit but whose brakes had failed and was bearing down on me at the legal highway speed of 75 mph.  That kind of experience could ruin a whole day.

Hey, it’s happened.  You have to be ready for such things when you’re an experienced Road Warrior like me with some hard traveling under his K-Mart military-style belt.  I mean I still had dust in my hair from a diner parking lot somewhere east of Kingman, Arizona.

All of this was happening while I tried to connect with the slightly sexy female computer voice on our GPS that was telling me what to do.  When the programmers put her voice into the internet/satellite system, they took a young pretty voice model and layered her intonation with mid-western wildflower honey.  We call her Moxie.  She’s available at the touch of a button, like an escort at an Atlantic City casino hotel.  Yet, all she ever does is tell you where to go.

I know marriages like that.

I was sitting at the red-light at the end of the ramp when I saw them.

Two of them.  A young man and woman walked across the road just in front of my car.  They carried backpacks and each had a dog on a leash.  I noticed an overstuffed teddy bear sticking out of the woman’s coat pocket.  It was the yellow-ness of the toy that caught my eye.

Look, run-a-ways, I said to Mariam.

No, just kids traveling, she said.

Two older teens with dogs don’t walk the roadways anywhere near Tulsa, I thought.  My imagination kicked in.

She’s pregnant, I said.  They’re running away from unaccepting parents.  In a few miles they’ll be at a friend’s house.

The light changed.  I pulled slowly around the corner and looked for an entrance to the Conoco gas station that was attached to the Wendy’s.  The young run-a-ways were nowhere in sight.

You gas up, I’ll get the spud, I said to Mariam.  We’ll take turns for the rest rooms.

I ordered my potato (baked, with chives and sour cream on the side…we’d add cheddar later)  To go, please.

I stepped back to wait for my order.  Someone stepped to my side.  I backed up against the stack of “Happy Meal” boxes.  I know that’s MacDonald’s, but hey).  I knocked one over.  I replaced it to the top of the pile.  As I bent down, I noticed the woman next to me was wearing military boots.  As I stood to replace the box, something in her coat pocket caught my eye.  It was a very yellow stuffed animal.  It was her!  It was the pregnant run-a-way.

She looked at me and smiled.  Her big eyes were made even bigger by the blue eye shadow she was wearing.  She was holding a chocolate smoothie.

Hi, I said, I just saw you back down the road a moment ago.  You’re traveling, I said.  I think I heard her say “duh” under her breath.  Yeah, she said, my husband and I are going to California…that’s him across the street.  She nodded with her slightly spiked hair.

And then she dropped the bomb on me.  They were going to California ALONG ROUTE 66!

I was looking into her eyes, not the eyes of a pregnant girl on the run, but a real child of the road.  No, not a child (she was older than I expected) and she was willing to tell me her story.  We went to a corner and she told me how she was born near Tacoma, not far from where my daughter, Erin, lives.  She said her name was Jade.  I felt rushed.  Her husband was waiting with the dogs across the road.  Mariam had finished tanking up with the gas, but I couldn’t let her just walk away.  I wanted to listen to more of her story…her sad story.  I filled in the blanks between the facts she told me.  She was married and had three kids.  Divorce.  Trouble.  Back and forth to Tacoma.  A disjointed life.

I asked, if she didn’t mind, could I ask her a personal question.  She said no problem.

Are you on the road because of necessity or just a long walk to California for the experience.  Both, she replied.

We plan on getting some work in Texas and save enough for a van to get the rest of the way.  She held up her Smoothie; this is lunch for the two of us, she said.

I hope you’re keeping a journal, I said.  This is an experience of a life-time.  She said that when it was over, they would be settling in California and planned on writing a sociology book about the people they met along the way.

I knew we had to go.  We moved toward the door.  I fished out a few dollars and handed the wadded bills to her and told her to have the next meal on me.  I asked if I could take her picture.  She said yes.  We walked to the car and I introduced her to Mariam.  Jade made a strong point that they were not Rainbow Kids.  I asked what a Rainbow Kid was.  She said that they were the young that were on the road (where? I thought) but they worked the system and always wanted a hand-out.  I calculated that these Rainbows could be the age of my grandchildren…the grandchildren of the ’60s hippies.  They (Jade and her husband) stayed clean and followed the Hopi Prophecies.  I looked her in the eyes and they looked clean and clear and bright.

We parted.  I honked to them as we pulled back onto I-44.

So, I’ve been looking for the drifters and the lonely along my journey.  I have been looking for unshaven sun-burnt men.  But they passed along Route 66 sixty years ago.  Then, they were fresh out of the army, families heading west, following the sunsets and hoping the new sun would rise on a better life.  Now, they’re out there again.  But, I wondered, were they ever NOT out there?  Did I stay too close to home to see the lives of people leaning against trees and fences, split-rail fences.  Or, did I just have too many maps in my collection?  Maps and Atlases that had colored lines and little dots on them.  When you see the world that way, as I did for so many years, you forget that along those colored lines, cars speed along and people roam.  And, in those little dots, in the big cities, small towns and the crossroads, old men still sat under cottonwood trees and diners smelled of real grease.

I had met the children of the children of the children of John Steinbeck.

This is Jade.

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Travels 16: The Rest Stop: An Encounter with Rex and Jenny

One long-standing rule of life I generally live by is not to form serious long-term relationships with people you meet at highway rest stops.  Today, I made an exception to this tenet and I bonded with an older guy named Rex and the girl, Jenny, who sat at his feet.

We had been ripping down I-5 in Central California at a tire-melting speed of 54 mph.  I swear the paint was about to peel off the leading edge of our camper as we flew along.  Grove after grove of Olive trees sped passed us.  Each of these plantations were manicured like a vineyard in Provence.  At one point, we passed an articulated open truck carrying a ton of garlic heads.  Now this was the land Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck wrote and sang about.  Every few miles was a sign that reminded us that “Farmers Feed America”.  This is what Willie Nelson is trying to save with his Farm-Aid concerts.  I felt like pulling over, climbing the barbed-wire fence and running through the Olive trees singing Nessun Dorma…reaching the high C until the mile long diagonal row of trees ended in an irrigation ditch.

Yes, this I would do to demonstrate my love for this land to anyone within the range of my voice.  Only two things prevented me from doing this wild and crazy thing: I really can’t sing (much less reach a high C) and I had to urinate like Secretariat.

We pulled into the next Rest Area.  My wife stayed in the car and I meandered (with haste) to the men’s room.  I exited by the rear door and walked back to the fence to look at an Olive Grove from a better angle.  It was on the way back to the car that I heard the singing.

There were no other travelers there save for two guys who were sleeping on the picnic tables.  There were two maintenance workers wearing day-glo green/yellow vests.  I changed direction and walked through the breeze-way between the men’s and women’s units.  In the center was a bench.  It was occupied by an older gentleman playing a guitar.  His carrying case was to his right.  There was a plastic cut-off milk carton just to his left that contained several dollar bills.  A crude music stand, a reject, perhaps, from a defunct junior high school music program or a hand-me-down from an ancient bluesman.  He was singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.  At his feet, was a small dog wearing a short lease that was tied to nothing.  I stuffed two dollars into the container.  When he stopped singing, he began to talk to me like he had not spoken to anyone in weeks.  He told me how important country music was to him.  Not the new stuff, no sir, but the old, the pure songs that came from the heart.  He played “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and his ancient voice bent around the lyrics like a narrow roadway up to the summit of Mount Heartache.  He said that was Hank Williams…I said I certainly knew that.  Then he said I can’t really sing this but I’ll give it a try.  It was sad to hear him struggle with the yodel of “Honky Tonk Blues”.

By this time I had motioned to my wife to come over from the car and hear him.  He told us how he was setting up one afternoon at a Rest Stop to the south and in the space of ten seconds, he said, someone opened his car and stole five of his song books…books with lyrics, scores and his own notations.

Why would someone steal his song books, he asked?

I just shook my head.

Just as he was starting another story, I put another dollar in his bucket.  I said we had to move on.  What was his name: I asked. Rex, he said.

What’s the dog’s name?

Jenny.

We turned and left Rex and Jenny at the Rest Stop.  He was starting to tell the story of the stolen books to another man who had wandered up.

Rex will probably never remember me, a guy named Pat who stood and listened to him sing at the Rest Stop.

Me, who can’t sing or play the guitar…but knows an old and pure song when I hear it.

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