harley-and-me-front-cover-v3.inddPrologue

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

—T. S. Eliot

 

The day is finally starting to soften with the onset of evening as a storm assembles to the southeast. The sun has been scorching my retinas all day and is just now starting to dim. I’ve been riding my motorcycle more than eight hours today, winding first through the stunning canyons of Utah, veering into Idaho for a bit, and now entering the spectacular open range of western Wyoming. My forearms are leaden; my shoulders sag. I vaguely remember the tasteless lunch I ate hours ago, but now I’m hungry. The air is hot, even hotter inside the road armor I’m wearing. I am saddlesore and this is only day two.

Rebecca and I are trekking by motorcycle from Los Angeles to Milwaukee and back, a sixteen-day, five-thousand-mile adventure, the first extended road trip for either of us. We originally met in the mommy realm, room parents together at the small, parochial grade school our kids attended. Now, our children are mostly grown and both of us have only recently left long-term marriages. Having fled the cocoon of the suburban world we’d long inhabited, we find ourselves at midlife, crossing the country on motorcycles, unsure of the road ahead but determined to move forward anyhow.

I am an American.

I say this to myself and marvel at the tangled
 reaction. There is the flush of embarrassment, the red tingling of
 some humiliation or slight that I cannot recall; I feel as though I owe 
somebody an apology. There is the apprehension that comes with 
knowing I am sheltered, a sense of being fattened up to be set loose 
among the hunters, the fierce entitlement of an only child. As for the
 pride and strength that are so often sung about these days, there is some 
of that; it is a small yet undeniable core that is muffled by the red-faced 
and jittery feelings, the sense of being foolish, of being misrepresented.
  Of being unprepared.

 

 

Road Trip.

In 1941, my grandfather drove across the country from
 Detroit to California to deliver a car and see the World’s Fair in San 
Francisco. There were no highways, the car broke down constantly, he 
slept in fields, and he said it was the best trip of his life. He hitchhiked 
home. Three years later he landed in France in World War II. Marched 
through France and into Germany. “Patton was right,” my grandfather 
told me. “We should have gone after Stalin when we had the chance.”

After the war, he got married in his uniform, finished a business
 degree at the University of Michigan, and took a job at Sears, where he
 would work for 38 years until his retirement in 1982. He moved into
 a house where the family fishery once stood and he served as township
 commissioner of Caseville, where he knew everybody by name.

My father followed in his footsteps. Except the war was Vietnam
 and Sears started offshoring its manufacturing. My dad changed after 
he lost his job, moving among various retail positions and the occasional pyramid scheme, and keeping to himself, hardly speaking at all.

And me? I spent a summer working the cash register in the
 lighting department at Sears, but I’ve had twenty-eight jobs since I 
started working at fifteen, ranging from the night shift at a gas station 
to selling oriental rugs to teaching graduate school to running a graphic
 design studio. I’ve never gone to war and I’ve never been punched.
  My life in New York City feels insulated, detached from responsibility,
 and the effect is compounded by the fact that most of my activities are 
conducted in front of a computer screen.

I am a million miles away from my father and grandfather, who
 played by a different set of rules: a belief in country and companies, a 
dogged faith in firm handshakes and settling down.



I decide to go for a drive.

And I keep driving, thinking I might learn 
a thing or two. New Jersey, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas.  
Whenever I can find some time and a cheap rental car, I pack a bag and
 drive. Oklahoma, Wyoming, California, Tennessee, Oregon, North
 Carolina.  Sometimes I’ll point the car toward the ocean, other times 
I’ll pick an interesting city or a small town along the border. Florida, 
Texas, Montana, New Mexico, Delaware, and North Dakota.  
I keep driving, thinking that I might figure out what I’m made of, 
that I might discover what it means to be a man in America.


 

What does it mean to be a man?

A man has politics. He knows
 where he stands. He takes charge. He’s authentic and genuine. An 
original. I’ve learned these things from commercials.  
Driving down a miracle mile, I see whiskey advertisements telling
 me that I’m a class act. A billboard for beer promises an exciting night.
  A deodorant company offers an embarrassing orgy.  An advertisement 
for a pair of khakis says that I need to be more rugged. Another poster
 tells me that I’m missing out on the excitement. The one next to it says 
that I don’t need to fit in. Every single piece of printed material is telling 
me that I’m a disaster.  
A real man ignores these messages. He’s busy making decisions.
  He’s breaking hearts and fixing things.


 

Message.

There’s a big electric sign just before the Delaware Bridge 
on southbound I-95 that says If You Are in Crisis, Call 1-800-273-
TALK. I often think about this sign as I fall asleep, how right now it’s 
blinking somewhere out there in the big American night. I imagine all
 the different people zooming under it at eighty miles per hour and I
 wonder what kind of person might dial that number. Will I ever call?

 

Reprinted from THE ROAD TO SOMEWHERE: An American Memoir by James Reeves.  Copyright (c) 2011 by James A. Reeves. Used by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

What did it mean to say “as it’s beautiful?”

I’d heard a woman’s voice murmur behind me in a language I vaguely remembered.“Comme c’est beau,” she’d said.Her words allowed me to forget for a moment that we were at an Arizona pancake breakfast and that no one else at the campground’s popular morning cookout had understood her.Only I looked up from my plate of shortstacks.

There lay before us a petrified tree trunk, an ancient, formless hunk of wood I wouldn’t have labeled “beau” at all or in any form.At its base, a plaque proclaimed its age at a hundred million years, with the rings to prove it.

As I sat applying more maple syrup pretending that’s what cowboys used to do, language had suddenly caught up with me.I understood only then that, after all these achingly beau travels through the United States, I’d be returning to the same country she would.Having wandered this far west, all the way to a painted desert and a petrified national forest, I’d managed to overlook the fact that I was tourist.

My love affair with America was inflamed today as I sat at the bar of Margie’s Diner on the verge of the 101.

Lit up by determined, crimson letters flashing *Real Food* *Real Food* *Real Food* a man in a stained and faded hunting jacket stirred his coffee for the seventh minute and a waitress licked her lips and winked at me… and my heart skipped a beat.

2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole

The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.

The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.

Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.

We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.

Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.

We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.

The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.

Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.

2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole

One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.

2/4 The Return Voyage

Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.

But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.

A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.

Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.

Becca, my girlfriend’s roommate, sprung it on me the day before I was going to drive back home to Texas.

I’ll pay your gas if you drive me to Alabama, she blurted out while me and her roommate got in some last minute canoodling.

My girlfriend knew what Becca was up to and she promptly filled in the blanks. Going to Alabama meant going to the state prison, to death row. How could I say no? When I asked her if she drove stick shift, Becca offered me the straightest face I’d ever see her make. Yes, she said emphatically, I can. Her bags were already packed. I knew a little about her Alabama death row pen pal, but the knowledge was stowed behind too many bottles of the Shiner Bock I’d been living off of back in Austin.

Becca found him in the back of some liberal-minded magazine, the part where they used to feature personal ads. A sense of commitment to the downtrodden and abused made her answer. But something else had sprouted. Bryan, the inmate, wrote wildly entertaining stories, then backed them up with wildly passionate odes, and so, his letters zoomed into Becca’s heart. It began to thump the familiar cadence of love whenever a letter from her prison baby arrived.

Austin was a different kind of Texas than I had previously gotten to know. It had a metropolitan sway, a verifiable scene to get caught up in. At night I parked the truck off of Sixth Street, mapped out my location so when I drunkenly readied for home, I’d be able to drive myself there. Ridiculously dangerous, and immature, but true.

Even still, loneliness, an increased alcohol intake and a new to me pickup collaborated, and like that, my first cross country road trip came to life. I needed the experience. So I drove the twenty-three hours to see the girl, through a snowstorm mostly, amped up on road coffee and white crosses. Before leaving, I’d even secured a few days off from the busboy job a friend of the family gave me.

Real experience had eluded me since I’d finished a get-your-shit-together summer working on my godfather’s ranch five years before. Now, Becca, offered it up in spades.

We split the next morning, after hugging my girlfriend goodbye, and chugging the home made fresh ground coffee, we tucked our bags behind the bench seat of the blue pickup, and hopped in. I’d stacked a bunch of wooden packaging pallets in the back, to keep the rear end heavy enough to travel through the storm. They banged around until we got to the highway.

Becca and I were pals before I ever met my girlfriend. Some days we’d sit on the bench outside of the gourmet goods store, and talk in strange accents. She was fun in ways I never dreamed of, completely unselfconscious in a sea of awkward puerility. And yet she also retained a total awareness of self. She studied dance. She listened to advanced classical music and silly Midwestern punk bands with the same concentration. Naturally I was drawn to her. Those very qualities were what made me say yes to the proposition in the first place. That, and her offer to pay for gas.

Once we hit the highway, the two of us kept talking, and the tapes I’d set aside for our trip never did make it to the deck.

We flicked our cigarettes out of the windows. We spilled Mountain Dew on each other, and laughed out loud until we couldn’t laugh anymore. Suddenly, we had driven eight hours. She said she’d take over once it got dark. In retrospect, neither of us had really clocked the trip, and I suspect she said that hoping I’d just keep going until we got to Alabama, because it turns out, Becca couldn’t drive stick shift at all. After gassing up I switched to the passenger seat. Becca grabbed the stick shift like she’d probably seen her Dad do. She never let on that she didn’t know how. But when she completely ignored the clutch, and the truck popped forward, and stalled out immediately, like a teenage boy in the hold of his first bedroom visitor, it was pretty obvious.

My Dad had refused to teach us to drive, correctly predicting my brother and I would make the bizarre requirement to learn on stick. Dad had long since given up on stick shift vehicles preferring the blissful ease of automatic transmission. An old classmate of his, down on his luck after years of boozing, turned out to be my driving teacher, and Dad would laugh at the prospect him teaching me. The blind leading the blind, he said. Becca exacted that driving instructor’s revenge upon me.

We were somewhere in Tennessee. Night was approaching. The gas station doubled as a truck stop, with the trucks parking at the north end and a long parking lot that angled downward, to the south.After about an hour of facing the truck downward, getting Becca back behind the wheel,delivering a rudimentary course in the five gear locations of the shift box, we were on our way. My stubbornness was showing. I wanted to watch the country go by. I’d never been to Alabama. And soon we would move deep into repressed poverty of the state. Thankfully, the State Prison of Alabama in Atmore wasn’t our first stop.

Becca arranged for accommodations, and gave me directions. I pictured a Motel 6, a Travelodge, a Best Western in the near future. Becca arranged something else.

I took over driving, knowing Becca’s concept of the gear ratios would splinter soon as we entered stop and go traffic. We were on the other side of the tracks, literally, having crossed an unmarked trestle as the neighborhood became a shambled mess of shanties and too small plots of grass.

I don’t think that Atmore had any neighborhoods that looked and felt and breathed with the warmth of a different, economically more structured South, but if it did, we did not see them. Beccabooked us a room through the inmate network. Here it is, she said, looking out the window at what looked to me like a shack to store old lawnmowers, a little bigger, but by not much.

Our host was named Amanda, or Brenda, or Linda. She was as big around as she was tall, freckled, strangely delicate, and kind. Her house was two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. And everything on that street seemed like it had lived there since long before I’d been born. Paint chipped off of each house. Rusted cars sat on wood and cinder blocks in each yard, and the grass grew weedy and high.

Our host showed us to our room, and having been through the ritual enough times already, let us be.

I have never slept in a bed that drooped on springs as creaky as that before or since. Each time one of us squirmed the other let out a quick laugh, but we clung to our sides of the mattresses like our lives depended on it. Before we finally fell to sleep Becca whispered the particulars of Bryan’s case. They each were on the last of their appeals, she said quietly. Then she announced that Bryan was innocent. As she said it her head came up so she could see into my eyes, the springs barking like over active hound dogs underneath of us. Her eyes burned fiercely, having told too many other over privileged snot noses the story of her death row inmate. I read the fury of her eyes, and quickly stifled that same reaction. Yeah, right he’s innocent, I thought to myself. But I also noticed she did not mention Ed’s innocence, immediately understanding her stance on that situation. Ed and Bryan had befriended a white girl, who may or not have been a prostitute. They got loaded, hung out for a little bit, but when the girl got mouthy, Ed took her for a walk, and when he came back alone, Bryan let it go.

A week later, the two transient men were picked up for the woman’s murder. Neither had money for an attorney. At the end of the trial, both received guilty verdicts. Bryan was unwilling to rat out his best friend. Ed was unwilling to cop to a crime where there was no material evidence. The lack of material evidence, however, made much less difference than the color of their skin, versus that of the dead woman’s.

Good night, Becca said, exhausted from the drive, from the information she just outlined.

The Atmore prison had towers. The towers had gunmen. When I parked the truck in the lot, the gunmen watched us, their weapons ready. I kissed Becca goodbye and started to make my escape. She tugged my wrist. You can’t go, she said, you have to come in and visit with Ed so he can get out of his cell.

It was an irritating favor to ask at the last minute, but I couldn’t deny the urgency splashed across her face. I looked back at the closest tower guard, sunglasses hiding sharpshooter eyes. Do it for the experience, I told myself.

Death row inmates don’t get to have regular visitor hours with the rest of the crew. They spend most of their time in their cells. Their prison community consists solely of other death row inmates.

In Alabama, the inmates wore white. As we made our way to the visitor’s area- a large glass wall encased room that resembled a public school cafeteria – the inmates appeared from behind a sliding steel door. Under the harsh purple neon light, their uniform lack of pallor from having little to do with sunlight was grotesque. Bryan and Ed were black. The vampiric lighting didn’t give them that ghoulish glow.

Becca grabbed a corner table, and we crowded around it. When you meet killers it’s unnerving how natural they are. How regular. How absolutely normal and likable they seem. A few years later a drinking pal of mine, a man I sometimes turned to for advice, revealed he was, for all intents and purposes, a murderer on the lam. We were sitting at the bar when he became a little wistful and announced he hadn’t been back to Florida to see his family for many years. Why, I kept asking- two drinks, three drinks later. By the fourth round, he could contain himself no more, and shrugged. I killed a guy, he said. He looked at me the same way Becca had the night before. I knew it was true.

Bryan was affable, and I quickly found the same charm Becca swooned over. He regaled us with tales of what each inmate was in for. See that one, he said pointing to a guy who looked like a car salesman, or a chaplain. He killed his wife for the insurance money. That kid, he said pointing to a stringy teenager pockmarked by acne with a black shock of hair, he killed his ex girlfriend, strangled her in her sleep.

Ed was opposite of Bryan. Reserved, quiet. A do-er not a thinker. Lost in naivete ( or the knowledge that I could get out of there) I asked Ed was what he did for fun. He played along, and talked about basketball. He could shoot hoops an hour a day, followed the NBA religiously.

I hated basketball. But I didn’t tell that to Ed. Instead, I asked him about his teams, mentioned I came from Maryland, and we talked about Len Bias, the Celtics and Michael Jordan. I’d gone to a sports camp as a teenager at UNC, and I told Ed about Michael Jordan visiting his alma mater after being drafted by the Bulls. He didn’t exactly light up the way Bryan and Becca did at sight of each other, but the story made him easier to be around. He told me what his day to day life was like, and I, in turn, told him about bussing tables for assholes, and spending afternoons in bookstores dreaming of something better.

Yeah, he said, I know what you mean, man. I dream of something better every night.

Becca and Bryan’s ministrations could have disgusted me. And after a few hours, I’d run out of things to talk with Ed about, and I knew I was going to leave. They knew it, too. But they still went through a few more hand jives underneath the table.

Becca got up and hugged me. Have a safe trip, she said. I was stunned. I assumed she would leave with me. No, she was staying to the end of visitation, and was going to spend the night, and come back the next day, too.

Ed shook my hand. A guard led him away. Bryan spoke up then.

Ed can only hang out when he gets a visitor. No visitor- it’s back to his cell.

He was trying to guilt me into staying, but it didn’t work. I wanted out of there. Another guard escorted me to the gate, and then I was walking on the pavement of the lot staring at the armed tower guard staring back at me. In the truck I grabbed a warm beer and guzzled it.

Then I was out driving down highway 65, past Negro Lake, past Satsuma, Saraland, and Mobile, where I picked up the I-10 and headed west to Texas, where I still felt I belonged, where dining tables waited for me to bus them.

Eventually, I found out the truth. There’s no escape from death row. I was subject to my own demonic possession, in regards to drugs and crime and jail stays. Summer of 2000, I cleaned up. A year or so later, as the chemical fog lifted, I remembered that drive to Alabama, to death row. After a couple of months learning how to explore the internet, I discovered what happened to the two men who shared their lives with me for four hours one lonesome spring day in 1992.

After that last appeal was exhausted, Ed was executed in 1996. Bryan three years later. Every time I think about them, now, I realize, had they been white, they’d likely both still be alive. In prison probably, but alive.

I saw Becca again right after moving out to Los Angeles about seven years ago. We watched a movie projected on the side of a cemetery mausoleum, oddly enough. When I asked her about that trip she brushed it off, immediately changing the subject. I had only brought it up in order to thank her for giving me an indelible experience. Maybe a cemetery doubling as a movie theater was the wrong spot.

 

I freakin’ love San Francisco. I mean, I love it.

It’s a weird hybrid of its own unique spirit and architecture and people, and the parts of my home town of Melbourne that make Melbourne, Melbourne. The trams, the street art, the tiny pockets of arts and culture, the live music, the bookstores (and the books)… the mix of parks and streets; green and grey. Progressive politics and e-commerce side by side; innovation and cultural projects and tiny bars down tiny streets that you have to know about to get to.

And, also, Zoe Brock!

On the flight from LA to SF I sat between a burly guy named Ken and a skinny young guy, whose name I forget. I feel a little bad that while I don’t remember his name, I remember that he misheard my introduction and called me Sam.

I like it when people mis-hear my name as Sam, which happens more often than you might think.

I wonder who this Sam guy is.

Sam Smithson.

I had no idea how many miles we had driven.

I’d lost all track of how many cities and towns and truckstops we’d been through.

The TNBers we’d met, at least, I could keep track of.

They call it the Big I, the huge, drawling loop of loops of freeways that lies on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It has eight main bridges and 47 smaller bridges, shaded a soft orangey-pink and aquamarine, rising up out of the sparse, desolate ground. It flows, a strange marriage between American highway culture and the desert; the colouring of it sits against the blue sky so perfectly that it just seems… right. Like remembering something you’ve seen in a dream but forgot until you saw it again.

It was OK, I guess.

After sudden rainclouds and sudden rainstorms, all of which avoided me as I slept in my warm hotel room and landed squarely on Zara as she foolishly went out to experience and enjoy life, we drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. We noticed as we drove that we had stopped caring at all about any journey that was under, say, eight hours. If it took above eight hours, then, yes, we would admit, that was a long drive. Anything else was a hop, skip, or jump.

Not even a big one, at that.

Seven hours, fifty nine minutes?

Whatever, man.

I could do that standing on my head.

We got into New Orleans as it was getting dark, with no idea where to sleep. As Zara drove, I rummaged through her bag and found the card from the Holiday Inn we’d stayed at the night before and called their national helpline, aware that the battery on my phone was seconds away from torpidity and getting lower and lower.

I frantically navigated my way through the help menu options, stabbing at the buttons and praying that the battery would find a last ounce of charge.

At this point in time, I may or may not have been visualising Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of Terminator 2.

Day 19 took us from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina.

On the open Southern roads, bright in the day, we listened to Lily Allen. We listened to VAST. We listened to Robbie Williams, Peter Fox, Siouxsie Sioux, Coolio.

Yes.

We listened to Bon Jovi.

We listened to Kansas.