I came sliding down off the tattered remains of Mount Mazama through a strange forest of tall, very thin trees in a race to see who could reach the sun first. The winners had not emerged yet. The trees had branches only at their crowns. It seemed like a forest of toothpicks. I assume that the forest had been cleared by fire or logging a couple of decades ago and the new saplings all got started at the same time. It looked like Darwin was about ready to assert his harsh rule there, if man didn’t do the thinning first.
I went the long way round the mountain, then headed east and north. I could have gone past Bend but my eyes were tired, and I wanted to be able to take my time finding a cheap place to sleep near an interesting-looking bar. Bend is a pretty large town, but I had gone almost all the way through it before I found a hotel and a bar close together. The bar: Cheerleader Sports Grill and Pub. The hotel: Motel West.
Things started well enough. I scraped the bottom of the car pulling into the hotel parking lot, but not badly. The woman who was in charge was very friendly. A talker. She let me look at a couple of identical rooms and pick the one I preferred. someone had been smoking in 130; I chose 126. “Where’s a good place to have a burger and a beer?” I asked her while my credit card was processing.
She pointed behind her, in the direction of Cheerleader’s. “This place right here has the best burgers.” She called back into the back room. “Honey, what’s the name of the huge burger we always get over there?”
“8 ounce,” came the gruff reply.
“Eight ounces,” she said back to me. “Well, they seem big to me, anyway.” If we were using the metric system I would have figured out more quickly that that’s a pretty damn big burger.
I had a plan, then. Before going to the bar I went across the street to Safeway to get more sunscreen. (Don’t ask.) As I walked past the bar I noticed that it looked pretty dead. On the way back the owners were out front, heading home. They close early on Sundays. I talked to them briefly, just to make sure they weren’t going to open again later, but did I think to ask if there was another place nearby? Of course not. I think the answer would have been ‘no’ in any case. finally it was back to Safeway for a six-pack and an evening in the room. (How’s this for psychology? I had no interest in a twelve-pack, but there was a sale on six-packs that made two of them much cheaper than the twelver. I almost bought two, just for that reason.)
When I got back to the room, I turned on the TV. Those who know me can vouch that while TV makes most people moderately stupid, television makes me a slack-jawed idiot. In bars I can tune out the TV, since the sound is rarely on, but last night in my room the box sucked my brain out through my ears and digested it with flashing lights and suggested sex. Thus, there is no episode called ‘Bend’.
Today’s drive was a little different. I had a destination and a deadline. The goal was not as difficult as I thought it was going to be, so I needn’t have worried, but I did. I headed north on my good friend Highway 97 into some big sky country (with apologies to Montana). There were parts that could have been the high desert in northern New Mexico except the scrub trees were a different sort, but there were also wide valleys green and lush. The sharp lines between desert and lush spoke of irrigation.
I damn near ran out of gas. I passed through one town, not happy with the price, and with an easy 75 miles in the tank. Town after town I passed, and if they had gas stations, they didn’t put them on the main road. I was really starting to sweat. The needle had swept past ‘E’ like there was a hole in the tank. I checked the miles since last fill-up. 375. I wished I hadn’t looked. “I’m screwed,” I said to myself. Mile after mile went by. I approached a settlement with a small building with GAS spelled out in big white letters on its roof. Judging by the age of the weed-engulfed pumps, there had been no gas there since 1960. I knocked my speed down a little more.
I was sweating when I came into Grass Valley, pop 165. It was a pretty little town, no part prettier than the gas station. I pulled in but didn’t see anyone. Across from the gas station was a towing service. I had made it; I wouldn’t need to be rescued. I pulled up next to the pump and listened to the silence. There was a sign that said ‘open’, but there was no sign of any people. There was no credit card slot on the pump; in fact, in Oregon it is illegal to pump your own gas. I got out of the car, stretched, and looked around. No one. I went to the building and tried the door. Locked. Fuck.
I got back into the car and drove the short distance to the other end of town. I passed a diner that was packed with memorial day celebrants, and then I was out of town. I was not going to depend on the next town having gas. I decided to go back to the 24-hour tow place. They had been open, and I knew they would have cans of gas. I was willing to pay a premium. As I was parking in front of the tow place I looked over and saw someone pumping diesel at the gas station I had given up on. I swung around and pulled up to the pumps again. A guy came sauntering over from the distant diesel pump and said, “How’s it goin’?”
He was a really cool guy. We talked about selling houses and seeing the world. (He’s a landlord.) His face was weather-beaten, his shirt said Harley-Davidson and that was not for show. While my tank was filling, two girls pulled up in a canary-yellow Xterra. The driver wanted higher-grade fuel (he only had regular there). I started to explain how if their car was tuned to run on regular then any higher grade was a complete waste of money, but he just said, “This is good gas. I put it in my bike.” Beyond question was the idea that he would put anything less than the best in his bike.
11.1 gallons. Eleven point one. I had plenty of gas left. I’ve put in 11.5 before, and more. 399.9 miles. You have to give that to the back roads. When you move more slowly you go farther. As I got ready to leave, he looked me over one more time. “I’m jealous,” he said. “If you had a cold beer between your knees right now, I’d be throwing rocks at you.”
“I’m in enough trouble already,” I said and drove away.
I was driving for a destination today, but as I got closer to my goal I realized that there was a flaw in my plan. Tomorrow is the first work day since that hectic spate of builds I heaped upon them Saturday. There will be questions. There will be another build. I won’t be delivering that build over a modem. Quick change of plans (“plan”, in this case, is used in the loosest possible way) and I pull up short in Spokane, delivering a cruel tease to one of my best friends, and I’m checking into Quality Inn.
As I’m checking in, I ask, “What’s a good place around here for a burger and a beer?”
The check-in woman points across the street. “There’s Dribblers over there. It’s a nice bar, but I don’t know about their burgers.” “Burgers are secondary,” I assure her.
It’s an eery replay of the night before. I walk up through the empty parking lot to the door of the bar. There is a sign. “Open ’till 2a.m. every night” it proclaims in bold ink-jet letters. There is another sign, handwritten with black El-Marko. Three words, three lines. CLOSED! CLOSED! CLOSED!
I drifted up the street and that’s where you find me now, at a place called The Onion. It has a kind of glitzy-chainy feel, but the help is right friendly. Eavesdropping on their conversations has led me to believe that they actually enjoy working here. I like being in places like that.