Friday, May 23, 2014

Buddhism Tells Us...

 ...that nothing is permanent, and to think otherwise is Ozymandias-level folly. I guess that also includes blog hiatuses. Yes, it really has been almost two months since I last posted, and if I'm honest I hadn't exactly been burning up the blog in the time leading up to the layoff. What can I say? Creativity, desire, discipline, interest, they all ebb and flow, wax and wane, come and go as they please, and there's not a goddamned thing you can do about it, at least until Big Pharma finally creates a boner pill for creativity. You wake up and you either want to write, or you don't. Lately, I've been in "don't" mode. Now I'm trying to ease the dial back over into "want" mode.

So what have I been up to during my literary hiatus?I also took on a really unique and interesting short-term contract non-writing job with the intention of turning said unique and interesting non-writing job into a unique and interesting feature story.

Can't say much about it now, as I've signed an NDA for the job, but hopefully after the contract's up I can sell a spec piece on the experience. Think "Arrested Development" meets "The Worst Hard Time" and that's kinda what I'm shooting for. Yes, it's an odd combination, but it's an odd job.

What else? As part of the job I flew to San Francisco for a few days, then road tripped home, and in the process finally got to see a few things I've always wanted to see, as well as a few more I hadn't seen in way too long.

A few takeaways:

My first visit there, and California is easily the most diverse and complex state I've visited. Texas, in typical Texas fashion, likes to brag that it's a whole other country. It's not, except in the mind of Texans, but California really is. Fascinating state. Not sure I'd ever want to live there (the eternal bleating proclamation of the terminally meek and provincial!) but it's damn sure a place worth exploring and knowing about.

I didn't see much of San Francisco proper, but what I saw was very lovely, except for the traffic, which was very ugly, and curiously - at least to this truck-drivin' Okie, almost completely bereft of pick-ups. No, really. I hardly saw a pick-up at all, other than commercial trucks, in San Francisco. Doesn't anyone in the Bay area drive a damn truck? What's wrong with you people?

Silicon Valley is its own weird world with its own weird culture, utterly alien to a rube like myself. I didn't like it at all. Too... something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Smug, maybe? A bit like Boulder, Colorado, writ way large. However, in spending a couple days there I noticed some striking and hilarious similarities between the average Oklahoma oilfield worker and the average Silicon Valley tech worker, most of those similarities based on the insularity and cultishness of their respective worlds and the fact that they both make roughly the same outlandish amount of money. Of course they spend it in completely different ways, but they're walking, talking, cliches, both of them. And really, techies, you need to eat some protein or something, because you all resemble twigs. 

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most fundamentally altered landscapes I believe I've ever driven through. At least now I know where my almonds come from, and the price this place and its workers (including some ancestors of mine) have paid to make it so. I stopped in Bakersfield for lunch, and considered trying to find Merle Haggard's childhood home, but was pressed for time and so I didn't. I consoled myself by blasting disc two of "Down Every Road" as I left Bakersfield and the endless monoculture stoop labor depression of the valley behind me, climbing up, up over Tehachapi pass and down into the shimmering heat of the Mojave with Merle's bourbony voice ringing in my ears...  

"My daddy plowed the ground and prayed that someday he could leave this run-down mortgaged Oklahoma farm, and then one night I heard my daddy sayin' to my momma that he'd finally saved enough to go, California was his dream, a paradise for he had seen, pictures in magazines that told him so.

California cotton fields, where labor camps were filled with worried men with broken dreams, California cotton fields, as close to wealth as daddy ever came."

The Mojave desert is as starkly and fearsomely beautiful as I have always imagined it to be. I fell instantly in love with it. If I were single, childless and responsibility-free, I'd quit my job, sell whatever possessions I couldn't fit in a jeep or a land cruiser, and literally lose myself in that region for a good long while, chasing feverish, shimmering desert rat dreams, perhaps never to return.

After coming down off the pass and its thousands of wind turbines, I briefly turned south and drove into the town of Mojave, just because I liked the name. Later, as I drove along Highway 58 across the northern edge of Edwards Air Force base, a B-2 flew directly overhead, then banked low and disappeared south toward some secret destination within that mysterious shaded area on the atlas. 

Somewhere near Barstow, where I spent the night, I drove a lonely, long-abandoned section of the Mother Road under a brilliant high desert night sky, just to say that I had, then turned onto a side road, killed the car and sat on the hood for a bit watching the stars, listening to the passing traffic on I-40 and contemplating things of importance only to me. At that very moment no one in the world - not even my wife - knew where I was. Sorry, aliens, You had your chance. I was ripe for the abducting, and you blew it. I took one last look around so as to always remember the sight of Joshua trees glowing in moonlight, then I got in my car, drove back to Barstow, ate one last In-N-Out burger (standard tourist menu, no secret menu knowledge here), drank a beer or three, and went to bed. It was a good night. I will go back there someday, before I die, and leave my footprints in lonely places.

A few more takeaways:

The drive from Barstow to Needles is long, lonely and gorgeous, if you're into lots of space and not a lot of people, towns or traffic. Check all three for me. That's my kind of interstate highway. 

The high prairie vista that assaults the eyes as you come back down onto the plains heading east out of Flagstaff, Arizona is one of the most beautiful I've seen, so much so that I had to pull over at a roadside rest stop, clamber onto the rock outcropping behind the rest stop (Caution! Animals found in this area can be venomous!) and sit on a wind-smoothed ochre boulder soaking in the immensity for a few minutes (schedule be damned!) as endless waves of fat, bored motorists trundled into the pissers below me, emptied their bladders, waited as their useless little yappy dogs emptied their bladders (where's a golden eagle when you need one?), then hurriedly got back in their cars without so much as a glance at the mind-blowing beauty stretching out in all directions before them. Their loss.

New Mexico, where I spent significant chunks of my childhood, remains - mile for mile - the most achingly gorgeous state in the union. I spent the night in Gallup, and after a good meal at a local place, I walked up and down the main drag past rows of pawn shops and panhandlers, just taking in the intoxicating differentness of culture and place, this one just a few hundred miles from my own, yet vibrating at such a divergent frequency. Later that evening, I sat at the big window in my third-floor hotel room at the very end of town on a thin strip of undeveloped land between I-40 and the main road. I watched travelers whizzing by on the highway to my right, while to my left three native boys, teenagers, by the looks of them, tried to thumb a ride on the state road leading out of town (to where, I wondered?) as evening's shadows deepened on the rocks. No one stopped to pick them up, and eventually their forms disappeared into horizon and night.

The sight of the Sandias looming over the desert is the best thing, in my mind, about Albuquerque. My brother and I used to spend part of our summers in Albuquerque, shuffling between there and Farmington - where my dad lived - depending on his work schedule. Sometimes on weekends we'd drive up to Sandia Peak and have a picnic. When we couldn't, I'd roam the desert wastelands near my grandparents' house looking for reptiles. It was, and is, a lovely area, but even then I remembered Albuquerque proper as a horrid city in a beautiful place (as most cities are) and some twenty-five years later, driving through at the peak of rush hour, I saw no reason, no reason at all, to modify that long-ago adolescent assessment. Windows up, seat belt on, and foot on the gas is the best way to experience Albuquerque. 

Crossing into the Texas panhandle I realized that virtually all the kitschy roadside shops and businesses I remember desperately wanting to stop at as a child are now gone. Hell, even Stuckey's is out of business. Of course, remembering their food I can see why. Most serial nostalgics pan the interstate highway system as cold and impersonal, and I guess it is. I'm way too young to remember Route 66, however, so for me I-40 has always been my ersatz version of the Mother Road. It was the route we always took to visit my dad's family in New Mexico, and later, after the divorce, my dad. I have many fond memories of I-40, but while I have visited New Mexico a number of times since then, I've not had occasion to drive I-40 from Amarillo west in some twenty-five years. So many things have changed, though thankfully not the landcape itself, mostly.

I turned north at Amarillo, back into my country, into the high, arid plains where interstates and their long, unbroken lines of motorized ants give way to two-lane blacktops, farm-to-market roads and obligatory steering-wheel waves to oncoming traffic. East of White Deer I stopped to check out a large playa lake that I always used to give a look to when we'd visit friends in Amarillo. On one such drive years before, I observed more pintails on and above that playa than I'd ever seen at one time in my life. Wave after glistening wave of ducks augered into the shallow water, while above them even more pintails circled and undulated in what the dumbshit stars and aficionados of avian snuff films like to call a "duck tornado" but what I (stealing from the Brits and their damn starlings) prefer to call a murmuration.

There were no murmurations today. Just the keening wind and the roar of oilfield traffic. No ducks, no shorebirds, no water and no life, even though it was the middle of April, ostensibly the rainy season. The playa was dry, just a vast, dusty bowl of heat and nothing, which pretty much describes the whole region at the moment, and perhaps longer, probably much longer, if that vast, evil, world-wide conspiracy of climate scientists and their pesky, goddamned facts are to be believed.

I got back in my car and drove deeper into the empty plains, silently contemplating the inscrutable mysteries of climate doom, In-N-Out burgers and the death of roadside kitsch as I steering-wheel waved to friendly strangers the whole way home. It was a good trip.


  1. Well first, I'm glad you're still on this side of the grass and second, your last 2 months were a hell of a lot more interesting than mine. And now my interest in piqued in that odd job.

    1. Hey Mark, it's an odd one, perhaps the oddest I've had in a lifetime of outside-the-mainstream jobs. But that's the freelance life... In a few months I'll let you know...

  2. Well worth the wait is always good to add a few more roads to your 'own personal geography' as they say...and a damn well annotated map I'd say!...

    1. Thanks, man. Map's not near as annotated as some, or as much as I'd like, though.

  3. Wish I had known you were coming through. That Flag high desert is ecologically more like our area than the part of NM you passed through....

    1. Steve, If I'd had more time I definitely would have let you know and made the attempt to turn south for a bit. Unfortunately, it was one of those trips where I had enough time to stop and dabble here and there, but not enough time to really spend any meaningful time doing anything.

  4. First off, I'm happy you got to see new country, it's always good for the soul. I have that same waxing and waning in my creativity as well, and I see it as a point of progress and refueling for the next step.

    Secondly, I live in the desert, am not tied down (well, not for long.. but it's good) and I pilot a 4-wheel drive Toyota with a handmade in Reno Caravan Camper all over the so called wastelands that I hold the dearest. Desert ratting is a dangerous mindset, and it keeps one crazy and sane all at once.

    Thirdly, my friend who travels the world snowboarding was at a rest stop/gas station in extremely rural Chile a few years ago. They were stretching and filling jerry cans when they watched a Benz pull up and out popped a loaded couple with a tiny dog. They let it traipse to the brush and a second later a golden eagle picked it up and shortly disappeared into the horizon.. your premonitions weren't far off.

    Lastly I'm excited to hear of your new endeavours. Keep it weird brother.

    1. Thanks, man. And Nevada is on my list. One of these days...

  5. A joy to read your account. Hopefully, you will one day have the time to explore that ol' adjacent route. It truly is the lonely road, despite the hype. I think many enjoy the idea of it but can't (or won't) take the time to see it through. The California Arizona stretch has gems for you, beyond the guidebook. You'll find them. Your writing tells me you are the sort that could.

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