After Death ValleyBy Bud Smith
May 16, 2019
Good Luck: Episode Twenty-Seven
Most of the time when you see a piano you’re not allowed to play it, but you’re supposed to try, even if you don’t know how to play it. Or at least I’m asking you to, because I’d love to hear you play.
Watching William smoke a Marlboro Red on Cannery Row, looking out at Monterey Bay and the gulls going keekeekeeekeeekeee.
Then I woke up in Big Sur and heard the waves crashing on the rocks just outside the tent.
All these days, all these nights, a restless feeling, and never truly comfortable and always looking for peace. And maybe I’ll find it tomorrow. Oh I doubt it. Oh I don’t even want it.
William and me are done driving west. We’ve gone as far west as we can go. Now we are just driving down the coast. It’s been over 2000 miles in this Nissan.
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and drove directly to a Dungeons and Dragons store in the Haight. While he was browsing, and excited about a figurine for a Gelatinous Cube (“I’m buying this, it’s only $10 or $15”) I found a board game called Holding On, which is a cooperative game where the players work on a nursing staff and try to keep a man named Billy Kerr alive–he’s had a massive heart attack and has been given mere days to live. I put the game back on the shelf and backed away slowly. I left the store and stood out in the rain and waited for my brother.
A board game about changing someone’s colostomy bag. A board game about spoon feeding someone soup.
When he came out of the store, he was happier than anybody. It doesn’t kill you to make other people happy. And look, here is another piano they say we aren’t allowed to play.
In Las Vegas, two o’clock in the morning, I’d been trying to find the hotel parking lot for the casino where we were staying, but I couldn’t find the parking garage. They made this whole city so disorienting so that you get trapped inside the casinos and spend all your money, but the problem is, they’ve made it so disorienting that you can’t even get into the casinos to spend your money. We circled and circled and finally found the entrance hidden behind a waterfall. I parked the Nissan. Trying to close the hatchback, I smashed out the passenger side tail light. I just stood there laughing and saying what the fuck. I don’t even know how that’s possible. We dragged our suitcases into the casino and we were lost in a maze of slot machines and bands covering Billy Joel and Shania Twain. I didn’t even get a beer in Las Vegas.
In the morning, at the breakfast buffet, we talked some more about D&D. He showed me a 3D-printed model of a dock that he bought so that his characters can fight on a dock in the game he’s running. In the photo, there is a Tyrannosaurus rex standing on the dock. “What’s up with that?”
“Her character is a T. rex. So when she is fighting on something like a dock, I roll the die every time she moves to see if she falls through.”
“Did she? Did she fall through?”
In Death Valley, he showed me his army backpack and explained how he got it at a flea market. The backpack is obviously not bulletproof but in poor English it claims to be bulletproof.
A lot of people I know are like that.
“The only way we can know for sure if your backpack is really bulletproof is if we shoot it.”
“We are not shooting my backpack.”
“It’d be no big deal. We could just get a rifle and shoot it and see what happens.”
“It’d be a lot of fun. We could get a shotgun at any Walmart. It’s probably buy one get one free shotguns out here in this dusty wasteland.”
Then we were listening to Danzig, and driving out of Death Valley. William was giving me the history of hardtack. I don’t know what hardtack is. He says, “First of all, Glenn Danzig would be realllllllllly happy that we are listening to his music in Death Valley. Second of all, hardtack is like a kind of biscuit or cracker, made from flour, a tiny bit of water, and salt. It gets hard as a rock. They gave it to soldiers for rations. It was shipped in these big wooden crates, and because it would take months to ship and would have to be sent very far to get to the front lines, when the soldiers finally got the hardtack, there were maggots and worms in the hardtack and that was considered a bonus. Extra protein.”
“Nice.” I look out the window, across the wastelands. They’re such beautiful wastelands.
“That’s not all. The soldiers had to be really resourceful with the hardtack because it was, like I said, hard as a rock. They would soak it in the fat of whatever animals they had killed to soften it up, or make a stew out of it. Crush it up into a powder…and that’s not all really, speaking of animals…the Union army was lucky they had the Irish because they knew how to hunt. The Confederate soldiers knew how to hunt, of course, but the union soldiers were city boys and they didn’t know anything about being in nature. At first they treated the Irish like shit but as they proved themselves to be capable hunters, and really, bailed out the city boys, they gained more and more respect…” I turned up Danzig. William shouted over Danzig, “It’s funny how people are, how they treat each other like shit until they realize they need them, they need each other.” I turn Danzig back down lower, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because we lose our cell phone signal again, and there is no more music. Just more of the history of hardtack.
We took 178 west out of Death Valley through a pass in the Sierra Nevadas, headed towards Sequoia National Park. Snow capped mountains in the distance.
We set up our tent again, at a campground twenty minutes out of the park. Two blonde girls were at the site next to us. I didn’t bother them, especially since we were all alone, the four of us, and my brother was chopping wood with a machete. I figured it would be stressful if, we, the machete neighbors, said too much to them. I just waved and drank a beer. At their site, they were getting drunk and having their own fun anyway. The sun went down. William saw they still didn’t have a campfire going, so he walked over and offered to show them how to make a fire. Haha. Like, hey, listen, it’s 2019, fire was invented over a million years ago, let me show you girls how it’s done. I sat at the picnic table writing postcards and listening to him explain the history of fire, and what flint is, and what kindling is, and they were laughing. Twenty minutes later, I saw the fire going and I heard them all laughing together again even harder.
“So you got the fire going…”
“She wouldn’t let me do it. But I gave her pointers, and she did it.”
I could tell he was in love. “Where are they from?”
“Across the pond, whatever that means.”
“I think English people are the only ones who call the Atlantic Ocean the pond.”
“Maybe.” When he went to bed at nine PM, they walked over and sat with me at the picnic table. They wanted to trade firewood for wine. I said sure and gave them some (we’d stolen it the night before anyway). We drank all the wine. They’re nannies, they tell me. They take care of babies in San Francisco, or did, but are now just a few days away from having to go back to Europe. The one nanny says, “You know, if I could be with anyone right now, do you know who it would be?”
“Princess Diana,” she says. And I wonder if they’re just faking being from England to fuck with me. I could care less.
You can pretend to be anyone you want to when you are far from home.
My brother has a bulletproof backpack, I know the history of hardtack, these girls are from across the pond, life is a shuffled deck of cards, and fuck I just dropped the entire deck at my feet and I’m driving down the highway and they are all over the pedals getting in the way.
One of those days, I realized, sleeping on the hard ground has fixed my back. It doesn’t hurt anymore. I’ll have to try this at home whenever I get there again.
I’ll stretch out on the sidewalk and look for the stars that don’t shine over Jersey City. They’re there, but you can’t see them.
May 12th, driving from Bass Lake, wondered how many Bass Lakes there are in this country. Guessing every other lake is called Bass Lake. But you and I have already been through all this.
It’s dark here, I’m writing letters and postcards by the campfire again. William has changed from an uptight person who doesn’t like me, into a carefree person who is going to murder me tonight as soon as I fall asleep.
Now we are an hour outside of Dublin, California. That’s where Joe Grantham and Patti Grantham live–the parents of Joey Grantham, the editor of this column. I’ve been all over the country this year. Seems like I’ve been doing all this traveling just to see the Granthams. I went to Woodland, North Carolina in March and saw the pharmacy where Joey works, and the big wooden house Joey lives in with Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. I saw the kittens. I heard the only cop in Woodland quit, and now people in town are roaming around vigilante style in golf carts, armed with shotguns. I heard the town doctor died, but don’t be sad, he was in his 90s and smoked cigarettes while he examined you. Then I went to New Orleans and saw Mikaela Grantham. Her house is on Kentucky Street. You should go see Mik. Maybe she’ll read you a poem. Maybe you can walk with her and her dog Ruby down by the Mississippi. Now Joseph Grantham Sr. comes home from work. We go in the house, and he makes me a sazerac, and puts ribs on the barbecue. It’s good to have friends and good to be a friend. There’s nothing finer in life.
Joseph Grantham Sr. lives in a house full of books. He’s kind and wise and writing a novel about Kansas City. We talked on and on through the night about it. I woke up hung over, and sorry to be leaving, but happy to be driving into the redwoods.
Yesterday, in Yosemite National Park, there was a guy lying on a bench reading Travels with Charley. That felt a little on the nose out here in Steinbeck country, but then I remembered I’d read it the first time I came out here, or just before I came. I can’t remember which. Someone told me recently that John Steinbeck lied a bunch about that trip and that he hadn’t really done it. There are conflicting events he was doing in other parts of the country when he said he was doing that drive with that dog. John Steinbeck and those nannies, all the live long day.
I was cooking hamburgers on a charcoal grill at the foot of Half Dome, and all these people were looking up at the rock face trying to see mountain climbers, but no one was climbing the mountain that day. It was a Sunday. I guess the mountain climbers were at church. Which makes sense. If you aren’t religious, I guess Sunday would be a great day to at least pretend to be if you were tasked with climbing a vertical rock wall. The people kept driving up and getting out of their cars and putting the binoculars to their eyes and they’d see nothing, no mountain climbers, and they’d be really bummed about it, and then new people would come up and say, “Do you see anyone climbing?” And they’d say, “No.” The original binocular people would give up and the new binocular people would take their place, and the original binocular people would leave. And then new binocular people drove up and asked the current binocular people, “Do you see anyone climbing?” And they would lower their binoculars and say, “No” and leave, and so on so on as I cooked hamburgers. I put cheese on the hamburgers and improved my station in life and William walked around collecting pine cones. “What are you going to do with those?” “Give them to mom.” The ranger came and the current binocular people said, “I don’t see anyone climbing today. Are there people climbing today?” The ranger said, “Let me see.” He raised his own binoculars and looked up at the mountain. “No one climbing today looks like.” It was a big day of looking up at nothing.
After that, William and I drove to Glacier Point. Way up at the top of everything. Looking out, one could see the whole park. And hey, it looks great. There was a sign explaining what rocks are and how they work and what ice is and how it works and hey it was great. I was perched up on this ledge and looking down there was another observation point. I saw a girl doing a photoshoot with a cheeseburger of her own. She was wearing a jacket covered in Japanese writing, and maybe was from Japan herself. Who was I to judge? I was having a fun time on the road. Here’s a person who was having fun too. They thought the view was so nice they should do a whole photoshoot of their cheeseburger in front of it. I was worse actually, because I did a photoshoot of the person doing the photoshoot and I didn’t hardly notice any of the natural beauty of wherever I was, and whatever it was.
There’s nothing more American than a cheeseburger, well, except maybe getting shot by a cop. Or shot at an elementary school. Or shot at a high school. Or shot by yourself. Or a double bacon cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, onions, ketchup, pickles and a side of bullets.
I was hoping my brother and the nannies would fall in love together and move to London and he could have a kid with both the nannies. He could name the first son he fathered from each nanny, Bud Jr.
But there the nannies go.
And there the sunrise goes. And here the sunset comes. And here’s the ocean and there’s the stars. Here comes the oxygen and there goes the carbon dioxide. Trees and asphalt and clouds and people looking for love. I don’t think we’ve come across a single cemetery. Isn’t that nice? Everybody out here is burnt to dust and scattered on the wind, going somewhere else after they die. Who knows where?
When William sees the Pacific for the first time he says, “Whoa.” I say, “Yeah I know.”
Death Valley had free WiFi.
Death Valley used to be mined for borax. And it’s still mined for borax. Borax is used for killing bugs and for cleaning clothes and hands and teeth.
The song “People Who Died” came on the radio and William started tapping the steering wheel and singing along and I thought, “Oh cool, wonder how he knows who Jim Carroll is,” and he told me that one time he was dungeon master of a campaign and at the end he was searching for a song to play off YouTube to read the names of the fallen elves and goblins and warriors and wizards and he stumbled upon “People Who Died” by Jim Caroll and hey now he’s a fan.
In total darkness, William lit us a fire and sat down across from me. “Remember when we were kids and hated each other?”
“No, I don’t remember that,” I said. “You hated me?”
He was quiet.
“I didn’t hate you,” I said.
I sat at a picnic table and wrote letters and filled out postcards. William was amazed that “people from the internet” had sent us all this gas money. We hadn’t bought any gas with our own money, and we still haven’t now, 2200 miles later, here in the sunshine, leaving again. Thank you for that. And by the way your letters and postcards are on the way. I sent them with love from a mailbox in Yosemite. And I sent them with love from Dublin. And I just sent more with more love from Santa Cruz.
I was just passing through and I still am.
I loved how it was. I wrote you every night from the Civil War, brother against brother, stars shining, big trees and frogs saying ribbit ribbit, and a camper in the next site over running a generator so they could watch TV, which I could also see, darling. What a bright electric dream it all was. Trailblazers 100 Nuggets 96.
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