I made it. I'm there.
Last week I drove 2,300 miles through 12 states, in a car packed with bikes, boxes of books, clothes, a computer and the various other odds and ends that comprise my earthly possessions. I was leaving town forever, moving to Arizona to escape another dreary Michigan November and find a new life in the fabled West.
Gated to Limbo
I'd been planning to leave on Labor Day, just after I got back from a mini-roadtrip to visit The Lush and CrAzE in Missouri and some friends in Indianapolis for GenCon, but a conflagration of lame circumstances conspired to keep me in Michigan for another 2 months while I resignedly pulled out sweaters from my closet and hair from my head in frustration. Ultimately, it was for the best. Had I left in September I would have missed the great Midwestern bash at Wiccanpiper's. I would have missed the fall colors. I would have missed saying goodbye to my family and friends. But by November, I was ready.
I had endlessly repacked and reorganized my things (what I like to think of-- in the RPG sense-- as my "inventory") into smaller and smaller containers during my 2 months in limbo, but still my tiny Honda Civic was at maximum encumberance. The shocks groaned. The tires compressed. The back fender clunked against the speedbumps as I drove through my apartment complex for the last time.
I left all of my furniture behind (no big loss). A pair of bikes were added at the last minute, as a concession to my uncle (I was on my way to meet my uncle in Phoenix. I'd be housesitting for him while he and his wife travelled around Italy). These went on the back, on a rack. Thus equipped for the epic journey, the burdened Honda rolled on for the rest of the two thousand miles without complaint. Another triumph of Japanese engineering.
On the Road with My Pet Goat
I hate driving. Woe betide anyone who has to sit through one of my rants on the subject, but suffice to say that driving is boring and dangerous. To stave off road-induced insanity, I had asked all of my friends to contribute mix CDs as a going-away present. They came up with an amazingly weird-ass assortment of things to give me.
One friend handed me a CD labelled "Porn", which turned out to be a mix of awful pop songs by The Spice Girls and Pumi AmiYumi interspersed with quite possibly every line Master Shake has uttered in the history of Aqua Teen. Another gave me a recording of the The Point by Harry Nillson (unspeakably wonderful) and a double-sized disc of dub music by Scientist. Another gave me a collection of conspiratorial podcasts about the tv show Lost, since I was to miss the pivotal 6th episode of the season that Wednesday. Another, an ancient languages student at Wheaton College, gave me a four-part lecture by C.S. Lewis on the 4 greek words for love: storge, philia, eros and agappe.
Add that to the things I had bought myself for the trip: Dane Cook's Retaliation album, David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, and a full-length recording of On The Road read by the actor Matt Dillon. Thus entertained, I was in no particular rush to get anywhere.
Aside from the CDs, I mostly amused myself by tracing less-travelled routes across the map and chuckling at the strange names of the towns I'd pass by. There's a town in Indiana called French Lick. I passed another town in the spur of Missouri called Braggadocio, which I thought was pretty cool. But nothing could prepare me for the sign I saw on the high plateau of central Arkansas, which read, in the plain official brown & white of the Department of Natural Resources:
Ruins of Cairo, Illinois
The route I followed was haphazard and vague. The "12 states" I mentioned up in the lead paragraph sounds impressive; my dear readers need not know that I was, for instance, in Illinois for all of 3 miles (the length of Cairo, IL, a peninsula). Instead of the more conventional (i.e. much faster) freeway from Indianapolis to Oklahoma, I dove straight south through Evansville to Peducah, Kentucky. I was intentionally choosing roads that racked up the maximum number of states.
I reached Cairo on the second day. It's a fascinating place, located at the confluence of two great rivers, the Ohio and the Mississippi. Probably itself worth an entire writeup. The "historic downtown" is a crumbling ruin (literally crumbling, some buildings neglected to the point that they've simply collapsed, the scattered bricks rolling out into empty streets). In the span of an hour I snapped 200 pictures.
On the Missouri side of the bridge from Cairo, I parked on a hill and watched the sun go down on the endless prairie. From that point it's exactly 1500 miles straight west to Flagstaff, Arizona. I got in my car and drove on.
Later I remembered that Lewis & Clark had probably stood on that exact spot and looked out for the first time across that same endless plain, 202 years before me, after crossing the Mississippi River at Fort Defiance and into the uncharted West on November 14th, 1803.
The Strange Green Lights of Logan
By Wednesday night I had reached New Mexico, and I decided to camp out for the night at Ute Lake State Park, a small reservoir on the Texas border near the small town of Logan, NM. Up until then I'd been staying at motels, but since I was dragging along all of my camping gear (along with everything else I own), I was determined to spend at least a night "sleeping beneath the stars".
New Mexico is a huge and mysterious place. In Michigan, when driving through the empty spaces between towns, there are at least farms or houses on either side of the highway. Here, on the cold high plains, there was nothing. I could see the strange green lights of Logan from 5 miles away.
I reached Ute Lake and pitched my tent in the dark (something I've got down to a science). There were about 2 other people in the quiet campground, and I was the only one with a tent. The ground was rocky, and every campsite was surrounded on all sides by the most pernicious cockleburrs I have ever seen. Dozens of the nasty things got stuck to my pantlegs and socks, and even the soles of my shoes.
That night, it got cold. I could see my breath in the clear air when I got up to pull more blankets from the car. In the darkness I heard a whole pack of coyotes yipping and howling, which would send the town dogs in Logan into their own fits of barking. I slept restlessly that night, eventually realizing that I was having to breathe a bit more than usual. And Flagstaff is even higher than New Mexico.
This will take some getting used to.
Painted Desert Sunset
It took me vastly longer than I thought it would to get through New Mexico. That bastard Rand McNally changed the scale on all the western maps. But I didn't care. It was Day 4 and I was on the home stretch.
I snapped shots of the Union Pacific railroad as I drove along. I've become quite an accomplished dashboard photographer. When I finally crossed into Arizona at last, the sun was already going down again, in an immense gold and red sunset, just like the stylized sunset on the Arizona flag and all the signs at the borderline. A great photo, spoiled by the bug splats on the windshield and the need to keep the car on the road and away from passing semis. Oh well, there'll be many more sunsets.
Near Holbrook I was passed by a hot red westbound Corvette with a license plate that read "ELUSIVE". I tried to catch up with the car to snap a picture, but the little lawnmower engine of my Honda protested, and the Vette's namesake proved true. It blazed on into the fading sun.
I saw a pair of murals at a truck stop in Holbrook that were good enough to be in any art museum in the country. Hopi Indian artwork bursting with color and details and strange symbolism. They'd been painted on a non-descript white wall between the Men's and Women's restrooms. Even the frames were painted-on. Arizona is an amazing place.
Lure of the Road
Rolled through my beloved Flagstaff and down into the Phoenix valley that night. A couple bustling days follow, me unloading my stuff while my aunt and uncle packed for Italy, but it's a big house and everything is eventually settled.
And no sooner than I plug in my PC this morning, E2 hands me an open invitation, satanic in its allure, to come have coffee in California with of-all-people Wiccanpiper and two of my favorite west-coast noders, two people who in a way inspired this entire move in the first place, when I started reading their nodes 3 years ago.
For a wild moment I considered throwing everything back in my car and hitting the road again, heading for San Francisco instead, just like Sal Paradise in the '40s. The long, agonizing moment actually stretches into two or three... but I have responsibilities here. I have my uncle's two cats to feed, and a bevy of Michigan tomatoes to protect from the desert sun. I have to find a job and a place to live. That very next day, November 20th, I'd even agreed to take my aunt's mother to the airport for the holidays.
California is just a state away and yet I'm 1000 miles from Campbell. Why is the West full of such impossible distances? I ask, though isn't that part of the reason I came out here?
So it looks like I'll be living here in solitude for a time, amid a glowing city of a million people. Soon I'll be settled here, which, ironically, means I'll have more freedom to roam.
"Somewhere the pearl will be handed to me."