I Love the Road

Long Road Ahead Somewhere between Hoover and Glen Canyon, on the stretch of road where I took this picture, it hit me. Not for the first time, not for the last. You know the feeling. You look at your lover/spouse/significant other over breakfast and the face you see just blows you away. “Wow!” you think to yourself. “I’m so damn in love!” It never gets old. Her face, his face, whoever’s face it is, strikes you as new and completely beautiful. It’s the first time you’ve ever really seen that face. There’s something about it that strikes your soul.

Yesterday I saw the face of the road again. I was blasting down a two-laner, sun baking the land, when I passed under a vulture catching a draft off the blacktop. I went directly under the raptor, and praised the sweet lord of the open skies for the ragtop as I looked up into the huge bird, its great wings aglow from the sun above. I shot past and nearly locked up my brakes for a doe and her fawn crossing the road. Sublime to rush. Love.

A couple hundred feet later I saw a deer dead at the side of the road. I think about death out there. Every rain-slicked curve at the edge of a cliff could be my last. Every time a semi hurtles past on a small highway, knocking my hat loose, I pass within feet of death. One sneeze, one seizure, and my tiny car is crushed beneath the juggernaut. A swift, unexpected way to go. That’s death on the highway. A matter of moments.

Out there, there are crosses by the road, marking places where people have died. I look at the contours of the road, trying to reconstruct the events that led to the tragedy. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s a mystery. Some unholy and unfair convergence of the world, or just asleep at the wheel. I have passed my fair share of twisted metal, surrounded by flashing lights and solemn policemen, shattered coffins spilling blood onto the road. Move on, the officers say, waving emphatically. My presence can only compound the harm. I stare ahead and resolutely do not add to the slowdown, riding the bumper of the car in front of me.

But you can’t have death without life, and you can’t have life without love. The road is the perfect lover. There is the yellow stripe shooting down the middle of the asphalt, stretching out into the future, always there, varying but never ending. The road itself is constant, an uninterrupted ribbon connecting here with everywhere so well that there is no here and there anymore. The road itself is the only remaining place. To the sides of the road, above it and under it, is constant change. Even the same stretch is different every time. Seasons pass. Stripmalls appear. Towns wither and die. The road is still there.

Today I drove through the Chama Valley in all it’s autumn splendor. I chased rainbows on the plains. I got cold, I got wet, I shouted into the roaring wind. I was on the road.

Rio Virgin Grille

Location: Rio Virgin Grille, Mesquite NV (map)
Miles: 12804.9

I am sitting now amidst the remains of a very good breakfast. The eggs were flipped too soon, but not too much too soon. The bacon was exceptional. The tea was hot and tealike.

I slept like a baby last night. Better, even. If I dreamt of Bobbi or (what did I call her?) Katie I don’t remember it. Boy, I needed that sleep. I awoke gradually, the sounds from the road outside insinuating themselves into my dreams. Finally at about 8:30 I dragged myself out of bed and scraped the residue from the previous night off my body. When I was done I put on my glasses. I thought at first they were fogged from my shower, but no, there was a film on the lenses from the bars of the previous day. I wonder what the insides of my lungs are like now.

I’ll say this: The folks in this town can be right friendly. Now, to the desert.

Through the Valley of Fire to the Bosom of Bobbi

Location: Stateline Motel, Mesquite NV. (map)
Miles: 12,804.4

Here’s all I’m going to say about Vegas: I stayed up till 5 a.m. with Amy the night before I left. I slept two hours while I was there. I left Sin City with a nice lump of dough in my pocket and no venereal diseases. Overall, a success. I have not slept since, so much of this will probably make no sense.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds accompanied me on my drive over to check out Hoover Dam (that will become a link when I have the pictures ready). That’s a nice bit of work. Another place on my journey that seems to be on the “must see” list for foreign tourists that is just a historical curiosity for Americans. For all the “No Trucks or Busses” signs as I approached the dam, there sure were a hell of a lot of trucks and busses crossing. (Though to be fair the trucks all seemed involved with the major construction project to redo highway 93 from a road that twists around the hills to one that blasts through the hills. That makes the road better, somehow.)

I walked around the dam for a bit. While the enormous sweep of concrete is impressive, I wish there was a way to help people understand the enormous force that structure must oppose. It is that force that turns on all the lights in Las Vegas, and more than just one or two elsewhere.

Move on, Jerry; move on. Sleep is catching up. After the dam I played K’s Choice and doubled back to Boulder City to pay way too much for gas. There was a gray road on my map heading north along the lake that looked interesting, but I didn’t want to try something like that out there without plenty of liquids for both me and the car. I also thought to confirm with the Gatorade salesman that the road I was about to take did indeed go through. He was effusive and earned the high gas price for his employer. I learned that I was about to drive through the Valley of Fire, that it cost five dollars, and that Captain Kirk was buried there.

It doesn’t happen every time, but on occasion I make the right choice. For those of you keeping score at home, the Valley of Fire (map) is a fantastic drive. Iggy and the Stooges were cranking. I really want to describe the geology for you. I want to describe how the ridges broke from the valley floor like dog’s teeth, black except where something had broken the surface to expose the blood red stone underneath. I could tell you how I drove past a basaltic dike into a section of twisted and folded white ridges standing over the red and undulating floor. I could speculate on life and death and heat and iron and blood. I just don’t have it in me to write stuff like that right now.

At the top of the lake, the road passes through the MOPAR valley. (No, silly, it wasn’t really called the MOPAR Valley, but daddy is a little dotty right now. It was something like that anyway) I had an Idea to stay in MOPAR, get up really, really early in the morning, and go back while the light was good to take all the pictures I didn’t take today. They would be much better when the Sun was low to bring out the features of the landscape. So I kept telling myself as I drove past photo ops. We all know the real reason I didn’t stop was because the road had me and she would not let me go. But this story gets squirrely enough without the new pantheon pulling my strings.

Title of my first nonfiction book: The New Pantheon.

Right, then. MOPAR valley. At the north end of Lake Mead is a lush and fertile valley. As I was driving into Overton a train tooted at me just to say hello (or so it seemed), and while there were people crawling up my tailpipe as I drove along at the absurdly low speed limit, overall I got a good vibe from the place. At least I did at first. The MOPAR Valley is an orderly and tidy place. White church steeples are visible across the valley, looking over their flocks and watching one another. I had started to look for a hotel next to an interesting bar, but then I realized there were no bars that I could identify. The only reference to alcohol I saw was a political banner for a guy named Tom Collins.

Onward, then! North to I-15 and up to Mesquite. I drove down the main drag in town looking for a likely motel. I saw a couple of promising ones, but then I passed an interesting-looking sports bar/pizzeria. Soon after that was the Stateline Motel, where I sit now resisting my inevitable journey into the Land of Nod. Ah, sweet sleep, you shall have me soon enough.

The motel had its own casino, if by casino you mean a smoky bar filled with slot machines. I was very thirsty from my travels, so I moseyed on in to catch some baseball and drink some water with a beer chaser. Drinks were free if you were actively playing video poker, so I put some money in the machine in front of me. I have read that if you play the simple, straightforward video poker exactly perfectly the payout is actually over 100%. I don’t think I played it perfectly, but I did end up with enough money to pay for my room, plus I got several free beers. When I hit the payout button the message came up “hopper empty” so the bartender had to reload it. When he closed up the machine it still didn’t work. Thus began my career being a pain in the ass for the bartender. I won’t go into all the details, but when I moved to another machine I had more troubles, and this time they were my fault.

Of course, I was not the only one at the bar. They had a promotion going that night and the place was filling up. As I sat down a man was tellin his credulous friend Buck about the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Things started to get out of hand when their conversation turned to rattlesnakes. I almost did a noser with my beer when he explained that if you wanted to eat a rattlesnake you had to be careful how you caught it or it would bite itself and poison itself, making the meat deadly to eat. Riiiiiight. And watch out for those Mojave greens! They don’t rattle and if one decides to bite you it’ll chase after you until it catches you.

But my long tale is not over yet, boys and girls. To my right, beyond the machine that had broken, were two women in the 50ish age range. We’ll call them Katie and Norma. Slowly I was drawn into conversation with them. My story came out, as it must in a situation like that. When I mentioned that I had considered going back to take pictures in the Valley of Fire, Katie said, “Well, if you’re in town tomorrow, you can crash at my place. That would be no problem.” I was already pretty sure I’d be heading east, but I thanked her for the offer. Not long after that the bartender told me to go back to my poker machine or give it up. I went back to the machine. I’d built up quite a few credits on it, and the conversation was getting into more dangerous territory.

An indeterminate time later, as I watched baseball and bet on the poker machine, Katie was at my elbow. “You understand,” she said, “that when I say you can crash at my place I really mean dinner and a fuck?” I failed to disguise my shock. “It’ll be good, I promise,” she said.

“Hammina hammina hammina,” I said, or something equally as eloquent. Which was better that what I thought, which was “GAAAAH!” She continued the hard sell. “Think about it,” she said. “Just a good time then goodbye. No tomorrow. You’re just my type, that’s all.” She proceeded to be very complimentary. I didn’t say no to her face—which she would have taken well, I think—but I had already decided to move on the next day. If there had been any doubt before, there was none now. The drawing occurred, the other of the two women won a disappointingly small prize, and it was time to go get some food. I skipped out and went to Playoffs Sports Pub and Pizzeeria.

OK, we all know about Jerry and bartenders. Bobbi more so than most. I won’t discuss the behavior of the assholes to my left in detail (although there was one chick who sat down next to me for a few minutes and burned through ten bucks on a video poker machine with an intensity that verged on madness but was probably only drug-induced), just know that Bobbi handled them with style and grace. They were all in love with Bobbi (except, perhaps, for the tweaker chick). So was I. Rose once said. “Boobs are men’s kryptonite.” Bobbi is kryptolicious. When she let her hair down, that was it. To quote pL, “Dang.” I had an excellent burger along with my Sierra Nevadas, and the bill came out quite reasonable.

I met the new owner of the place (he had bought it three days ago), and when he heard that I would be writing about Playoffs Sports Pub and Pizzeria (map) on the Web he was excited. I tried but failed to impress upon him just how insignificant my opinion is, how few people will ever read this and of those how many will find themselves in Mesquite looking for chow. But if by some miracle that describes you, dear reader, then trust me, Playoffs is a good place to go. It’s right on the main drag. (Sorry, Marc, that’s the best I can do. The rest is up to you.)

Back to Bobbi. Bobbi, Bobbi, Bobbi. Tonight I will dream of Bobbi. Tonight is now. I must sleep. I am becoming transparent, not really here at all. That my eyes are open is only a formality. Good night, dear readers. Thanks for sharing my day with me.

5000th visitor, and Vegas, Baby!

As soon as I post this and get supplies, I’m on my way to Vegas. There are several reasons I might not be able to post while I’m there, but in the end it boils down to this: Once, long ago, at one of the bacchanals, I lamented that I had no camera. Jesse shrugged and said, “Some people make history, some people record it.” My time in Las Vegas will be about making history. I’ll let the local news channels record it.

Moments ago we had our 5000th visitor to the site! Wow! At this rate of growth I’ll be slightly famous by the year 2012. Look out! I had hoped that V5K would be someone I recognized, but alas the person arrived here on a search for “Hampton Inn Temecula” (or so it seems—when I reloaded their search I didn’t see a link to my blog.)

Sunscreen at the ready, I now head into the desert.

Goodbye, Rose

This will be my third time heading out of town, but the previous two times I knew I was coming back. Not this time. I’m really not much of a goodbye guy; I prefer to slip out unnoticed, but to Rose I really wanted to say goodbye. Maybe that’s why she slipped away. We’re alike that way. We’re alike in a lot of ways, the notable difference being that she rocks.

It’s not secret that I have a soft spot for bartenders. They have to pretend they like me even when they don’t, and I’m willing to believe the fiction. Given time, I can turn the pretense into reality. I’ve got to be the prototype for the ideal bar patron. Low maintenance, friendly, and appreciative. I shudder to think how many IQ points I’ve lost to alcohol (not that IQ is worth a crap anyway but you get the idea), but I still know how to mount a gyroscope to hold a motorcycle up and I still can hold a good argument, and quite frankly everyone else’s ideas for a hotel on the moon are pathetically misguided. Seriously. Those guys are idiots.

But Rose and I will not be meeting on the moon. I am leaving the bar that has been my home since it opened, fifteen years ago. I am leaving Rose. More reliable than any lover, she has always been there for me. While I’ve never been deep inside her life and she’s never been deep inside mine, we understand each other. Rose, quite simply, rocks. Tonight is one of the only times I didn’t tell her so. It feels like I left the period off the last sentence in a story. I may never see her again. She may forget she rocks. The latter is much worse than the former. But without me there to remind her…

She slipped away tonight. I’d like to think that’s because we have a certain unspoken connection. I’d like to think there’s a bond between us that she picked up on to tell her that this was the final goodbye. Too much freight to carry. I’d like to think it mattered to her. Maybe it did. Eventually, it’s not going to matter what mattered to her. It’s done now.

So goodbye, Rose. You Rock.

Sisyphusted

I’ve just reread the ending I rewrote for The Monster Within and I’m going to have to rewrite it again. This version sucks less than the previous, which is encouraging, but it still has a way to go. The fact that I already knew I was going to be rewriting it again didn’t help. I put it aside for a few days just so I could see the flaws more clearly.

I am looking at a long uphill slope, and the boulder just keeps getting heavier.

“This is the challenge I’ve taken up,” I remind myself. “If I’m going to make a career of this, I have to get through the tough parts.” Lots of people start projects, many get through the middle stages, but finishing is what sets the successful apart from the… uh… not successful. I’m going to finish this bad boy. Still, I look at the only-incrementally-better ending on my story now and I know there’s a lot of throwing away in my near future.

Well, I’d better get to it.

Addendum: before I even post the above I have new news. Sitting over the ending all afternoon, writing without typing, I have discovered not one, but two things that were missing to bring emotional resonance to the end of the story. Damn! It’s gonna be good! I wrote some of it tonight and it just plain feels right. Still a long difficult way to go, every sentence a challenge, but finally I feel good about the end.

Pants, let me know when you’re getting to the end so I can ship you a new one. Hot sweaty dang.

Episode 6: The Devil You Know

“Did you see it happen?” Ed asked.

“Half of it.”

“What? Which half?”

“The half where sunshine here got a bullet between the eyes.”

“C’mon, Charley. Help me out. I’ll make it worth your while.”

I looked at the man standing next to me. The skin of his face had a disturbing yellowness to it, dyed by the smoke of countless cigarettes. Even as I watched he took a heroic drag on his current victim, producing half an inch of ash, at the same time fishing a pack of Lucky Strikes out of his pocket for a replacement. His movements were awkward and jerky, as if each part of him acted on every idea long before he was even aware of the thought, and without regard for what the other parts were doing. His walk was little more than a controlled fall, and at any moment one foot might get the idea to go a different direction. His eyes were always moving, darting from point to point, afraid that something might happen while he was looking away. His mind worked the same way, skipping uncontrolled from thought to thought. Yet he never fell, and he rarely missed anything. He was an easy man to underestimate.

“I’d help you if I could, Ed, but I don’t know anything. I was just heading back to the office.”

“Uh, huh.” He didn’t believe me, but another thought had distracted him. “Which way’d it come from?” He was already staring down the street in the correct direction. More police were arriving, fanning out to go from building to building, looking for witnesses. I recognized Detective Hunt as he pulled up, and I knew I was going to be the center of attention soon.

“Over there.”

“Talk to you later, Charley,” he said. “Gotta talk to some people before the cops scare them too bad.” He was on his way. If I didn’t know better I would have thought he was avoiding the detective.

I barely had time to inhale before Hunt found me. “Mr. Lowell,” he said. “I understand you are a witness.” I didn’t like his formal tone. We’d played poker before. “Mind if we pat you down?” he asked.

I did mind. It would set a bad precedent. “It’s nice to see you, too,” I said.

He let me have my way, at least for the moment. “What happened, Charley?”

I told him everything, starting from the moment I left Jake’s. It didn’t take long.

“Anyone gunning for you, Charley? Made anyone mad lately?”

“Nobody in particular. Things have been pretty slow.”

“You think that bullet was meant for you?”

I shrugged. “It would be a hell of a shot to hit a guy in the forehead like that while he was walking, but it sure looks like that was the plan.”

“Why would a high-calibre marksman be wasting time on a chump like this?”

“Beats me.” Why would he be wasting time on a chump like me?

“I recognize this mug. He was one of Fat Angelo’s boys. Fresh off the boat.” Hunt lowered his voice a notch. “You know anyone mad at Fat Angelo? I mean, madder than usual?”

“Everyone.” Hunt well knew Fat Angelo had managed to stay alive by being astonishingly brutal with his rivals while kissing the asses of his superiors with grace and skill. More than one of those men had felt the kiss become a bite. The list of people who wanted Fat Angelo dead would have been a long one but most of them were already dead themselves. Now, it seemed, Fat Angelo was interested in me. I didn’t mention that whoever had killed this goon could easily have knocked off Fat Angelo himself. I was coming to an inescapable conclusion. The bullet that had killed this man had been to protect me. Having such a capable guardian angel gave me the chills. Angels are notoriously fickle in this town.

We exchanged pleasantries for a while longer, but neither of us had anything much to say to the other. Finally he had to let me go. “Don’t leave town,” he said. “I’ll have more questions for you later.”

Don’t leave town. I’d been trying to leave town for years and hadn’t managed yet. The city had wrapped me in its smothering embrace and it held me tight, a jealous lover clinging long past the time the magic was lost. I had tried to leave before, but had always been pulled back to the concrete and glass hive, the center of the Human Universe. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

“And Charley?”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful.”

I nodded. “I better get back to the salt mine.”

He hesitated. Last chance to come clean. Last chance for me to protect you. Last chance for the devil you know. “See you, then.”

I beat it back to the Phelps Building. I had a lot of thinking to do, so I stopped off for a bottle on the way back. It was going to be tough going back to rye after the smooth, smoky scotch I’d had at Jake’s, but I’d manage somehow.

Tune in next time for: When It Rains…!

The Desert

I came down through Splendor, passing the inviting breakfast shops and tourist traps, chasing the white stripes that would not let me stop, would not let me rest. Winding down through canyons of forgotten beauty I descended into saguaro country and further down onto the hard-baked bedpan of the desert floor. The sun directly overhead pounded the landscape into pure bleak flatness, robbing the land even of its shadows. The shimmering heat over the road reflected the bottomless cobalt sky, making it appear that the shoulders of the road were hanging in the air.

The white stripes paused; the road had been resurfaced here but not repainted. There was room to pull off to the side, with a rusted trash barrel standing with its plastic liner next to a picnic table sitting naked in the blasting sun. This is it. The gravel scrabbled beneath my tires as I pulled over to the side of the road. I sat for a moment, idling quietly, before I turned off the engine and felt the true silence of the desert crashing over me.

I opened the door and lifted myself up out of the low vehicle into the crackling air. I stood, listening for the whispered sigh that would announce the approach of another car, but there was nothing. There would be no one, I suspected. Not even the lizards would be coming out today.

I listened to the soft crunching sound beneath my feet as I walked around the convertible and hoisted out the nearly-exhausted jug of gatorade. I drained the last of the salty liquid and tossed the empty into the trash can. It wasn’t heavy enough to push its way down into the flimsy trash bag; it just sat at the top, peering out of the can as if rejected, hovering between the worlds of litter and trash, but unable to join either. Heaven or Hell. Just different kinds of dead. The bottle pointed North.

I adjusted my hat and turned, facing North, away from the road. The fence was down; the century-old wooden posts staggered drunkenly or lay in their final resting place as the wind slowly buried them under pale dust. Where barbed wire still clung to the posts tumbleweeds had collected, skeletons of Russian emmigrants who had done well in the new world, taming the west so thoroughly they had become icons. They watched me now with futile hostility. Their battle line broken by time and neglect, the sentries could do nothing to prevent me passing into their conquered land beyond the fence.

I turned back to the car and lifted the army-surplus duffel out of the passenger seat and hung its strap over my shoulder. It felt heavier than it should have, as if the Earth was impatient to recieve its contents. Careful not to dent the metal of the car, I pulled out the shovel. Using its long handle as a walking stick I set out into the desert. Moses beginning his exile must have felt this way.

I glanced back at the car, shimmering and ticking. Someone would be coming back for it, but I didn’t think it would be me.

Suicide Squirrel Threat Level Meter

I have realized that as I sit atop my media empire I have a responsibility to the community I serve. Having originally broken the story of the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult, I must take on the mantle and continue to monitor this nefarious and fuzzy organization. Therefore I have spent my precious afternoon putting into place the Suicide Squirrel Threat Level System. I will now be monitoring suicide squirrel communications activity (“chatter”, we call it in the biz), and based on that and other less tangible data I will periodically update the Suicide Squirrel Threat Level indicator on this site. Please be sure to check back often. Remember, preparedness is their worst enemy!

The threat levels are:
RED: psychotic
ORANGE: peeved
YELLOW: sick and tired
BLUE: ready to jump
GREEN: peaceful, easy feeling

Note that blue is where we would expect the greatest suicidal activity. Please pay close attention to the current threat and adjust your duct tape stockpiles accordingly. There may be times when the threat level seems arbitrary, but please be assured that this public service is backed by 100% USDA choice Science.

If you want to be part of the Suicide Squirrel Alert System, simply paste the following tag into your page. Your page will instantly update with the correct image:

<script type=”text/javascript” src=”http://homepage.mac.com/vikingjs/blogstuff/ThreatLevel.js”></script>

Thanks in advance for helping with this serious problem. If you do choose to become involved, I’d like to hear about it, either through the comment system or using the trackback thingie below.

squirrel_all.gif

Update! WordPress users can now become part of the network simply by dropping in a widget! Go, Team WordPress! Let’s take this battle to the next level!

Six Months on the Road

Location: Country Inn, Poway CA
Miles: 12154.9

Yep, you read that right. Six Months. My own sense of time has gotten so warped that I have no idea how long ago it was that I was in any particular place. Tahoe seems recent, Calgary impossibly distant.

A while back Jojo asked me how the trip had changed me. I wasn’t able at the time to give her a good answer. Honestly, I don’t know that the trip has changed me much at all. I’ve had more experience at being alone, at walking into a place where I don’t know anyone. Perhaps I’m better at striking up a conversation with a stranger – those of you reading this probably get the idea that I do it all the time – but in fact with the possible exception of bartenders I’ve failed more often than I’ve succeeded.

One change that is possibly measurable is that I value peace in my surroundings more than I did. Not the library peace-and-quiet atmosphere, but one free from anger. When I am around people who are needling each other it’s like a hot poker in my brain. I’m sure I was better at tolerating that stuff before. Now when people are bugging each other I just want the hell out of there. Not sure how this came to pass, but I think out there on the highway somewhere I lost some mental calluses that had built up over the years.

Although there are many friends here in town that would have happily put me up for the night, tonight I chose to stay in a hotel. There are days when I just need a space that is mine. Rented rather than borrowed. A place that does not put me in a situation of psychic debt, a place where I am not an intruder, however welcome, in someone else’s space. Amy, of all my hosts, has been the easiest to intrude on, since she isn’t in the least inclined to tiptoe around me. She’s got her life going on and some guy on the sofa isn’t going to get in her way. It’s like writing in a bar. Life moves around me, and pays me no heed.

This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a hotel room to have my own place for a few hours, but lately I’ve understood better why I’m doing it. As I came through the door this evening and looked at my haven I felt like there should be some ritual I perform, some gesture to the gods to consecrate this place, however temporarily. I stood there like a dork for a few seconds and completely failed to come up with the appropriate gesture. Finally I hung the “do not disturb” sign on the outside door handle. Not really the poetic/creative modern witchcraft I was looking for, but it is a symbolism that is widely recognized.

I said above that this life is getting old, and that certainly is true. However, if I could find someone to pay me to keep doing this, you know I would. This morning I think Amy felt the change in me. She saw the one-foot-out-the-door Jerry. Getting back on the road is becoming a need again. And maybe that’s the change Jojo was looking for.

NaNoWriMo signups start today

NaNoWriMo season begins again today at 3 p.m. Pacific Time. Whether a grizzled veteran or a writing wannabee I recommend this dazzling adventure. I first did it four years ago and it changed my life. I mean, heck, just look where I am now, an umemployed ex-geek drifting aimlessly across the country with little to show for it except an abused liver. This could be you!

All seriousness aside, If you have ever thought you would like to write a novel one day, this is your chance. Surely you can rearrange your life for one little month. After 30 days of toil you’ll have a really crappy first draft, an amazing sense of accomplishment, and a bunch of new friends who are just as crazy as you are.