HCS (IV, 1): The Dark West

There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night. And if you go, no one may follow, that path is for your steps alone

-Jerry Garcia                        

I- Nebraska

We called him Potter. This was funny to me but maybe to no one else. There was another Potter a year before, but he had stayed in Oregon and was doing some combination of literary adventuring and musical entrepreneurship. This Potter was Potter because he sort of looked like Harry Potter to some people. I didn’t think he did at all. Anyways, Falcon was friends with his older sister from her undergraduate at American, and he’d been down for a month or so.

I heard a rumor that Potter was taking a Greyhound back to Lincoln, so I approached him on a whim one afternoon. “Potter, you’re taking a bus home? Because I’ll give you a ride if you split gas with me, if you want.”

The night before I left, we had the traditional farewell dinner, a speech, and the accolades. They hung a Hands On USA sweatshirt on the wall of heroes. I thought about how I knew every single name, had worked with every single one, and was one of the last that could say so. Mine was much more colorful than standard—Falcon, Ally, and Suzanne had painted “The Good Doctor: Guillermo” in big green, with a “+ Helicopter” written below. All puppies from the Animal Rescue Ben delivery got such recognition. The Boss was below Niko’s name, and Scraps was below Catholic Nick’s. I liked that their retired jerseys were near mine, for Helicopter’s sake more than my own. There was also an 80’s Prom sash safety pinned to the side of my name; I thought of being king for a night, dancing with Karissa to “Time After Time.” It was a much better prom than my high school one, I reflected, not that that one was bad; this one was just better.

I can’t remember what they said about me, but it was all kind, and it took an hour. We probably went to the Pub that night, I probably played darts and pool and I probably sat on the fallen tree on the golf course after that, smoking pot with my good friends and admiring the big sky.

So that was how I left Biloxi on November 15th, 2006— Potter, Helicopter, and I off on the road to Lincoln, Nebraska, without much of a plan besides a roadmap. In the thick air of humid November, we were to strike through the visceral spine of America. Up through the great Heartlands, the Ozarks, broken Kansas City, then to Lincoln, Nebraska: Empire City of the plains. We headed west first on I-10, and then veered north on I-12 at Bay St. Louis. I asked Potter if it was ok to stop at Abita Springs for a drink, and it was. So an hour into the trip, which had started at the late hour of 1 pm, we went into the brewery restaurant and had the Abita sampler. Amber Ale, Purple Haze, the seasonal, 8 ounce glasses on a fancy wooden server with depressed glass holders. We talked about the future a bit, Potter’s impending trip to Bangladesh with his family, nothing huge. Then we were back on our way.

We continued west to Hammond, and then caught I-55 north. We crossed back into Mississippi 30 minutes later. I’d never been on 55 before, but it reminded me a bit of I-65 north of Mobile. An exit every 15 miles with a singular gas station on an otherwise deserted road. But less frequent on 55. There weren’t as many trucks on 55 either; this road was the throughway between Chicago and New Orleans, but who knows. Maybe I didn’t even notice trucks in the buzzing rain, which began past Independence.

We continued on at a slower beat, and took out the iPod to start a music tournament to pass the time as the sky got darker. The rest of the trip was uneventful, we simply pressed on north in the rain, which continued past Jackson, past Grenada. We arrived in Memphis around 9:30 or so.

I decided we should at least make an effort to find some Memphis music, so we skirted off the highway and wandered the streets. I of course had no idea where the actual downtown area was, and we ended up in an industrial district. Nothing doing after 15 minutes and I finally gave up on this mission and elected to get back on the highway. We crossed Tennessee into Arkansas, and the rain went from a sprinkle to an utter downpour.

I decided it was best to get some early sleep and wake up before dawn to continue on, so we pulled into a rest stop outside Marion on 55. Potter grabbed the reclined passenger seat, and I slid into the third seat and snuggled with Helicopter. I was happy to be hardy and not spending money on a motel. That was not an option, not because I couldn’t afford it at that time, but because I had no job and no plan and $3,000 left. Every penny counted. I slept.

I woke up at 5:30 the next morning and got us back on the road. The Ozarks were important, so we cut off the interstate at Gilmore and started up Arkansas state road 63. We could take that to 60, and then to 65 and get a full taste of the mountains; seeing the pre-Eisenhower Heartland this was more important to me than the pace. We crawled through towns at times, past lakes and post offices, and it was in one of these places that “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison beat “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley for the tournament championship. As it was a subjective contest at the core, victory was a function of the bucolic landscape. And this was good, and remembering Sweet Thing in the Ozarks remains a wonderful moment of that trip.

We continued off the interstate for much of the day, cutting into Missouri and eventually leaving the big mountains for the grassy hills, then finally for the flat roads up toward Kansas City. At long last we arrived at I-70 (I-70 starts in Baltimore, I thought to myself, and it goes for a long ways, doesn’t it?) Over into Kansas City; the sun hung midway down in the sky, the old industry rusted into beautiful brown beams and broken windows, golden in the ochre light.

I spent 5 minutes in Kansas before returning to Missouri on I-29, which skirted the state border on the east side until Kansas became Nebraska 10 miles west of our northern route. We caught Route 2 near Nebraska City, and finally arrived in Lincoln around 6:30.

Potter’s parents were kind, and let Helicopter and I set up in their attic guest room. I spoke with his mother about my plans to settle in the Plains somewhere to finish my book. I wanted a farmhouse, I said, and a field for Helicopter, a hearth and a maul axe to chop wood, maybe some temporary work in the day to keep something coming in and make sure that I could stretch the money until I finished. Biloxi was good, but it was time to put it behind me, and I could only do that by finishing the story. His parents gave me a book called “The Great Plains,” and I promised to mail it back when I had read it.

Potter took me out to the Lincoln bars, which were mostly full of Huskie college students. I appreciated attractive blondes, but simultaneously wished we were in a familiar keyhole dive bar instead of the TGI Friday’s derivative. But it was ok. Potter talked about Biloxi, and moving forward, and maybe going back to school, but probably not. His entire family was doing a service year in Burma together. That was nuts to me— who has a family that can stand each other that much? Enviable.

Elly asked me to promise to call her mother while I was in Lincoln. I had her phone number, but I didn’t call her; I resolved to make up an excuse to Elly later. What was I going to say to her? I think at heart I knew I wasn’t at that level of reasonable conversations with adults; I didn’t even really want them unless I needed to have them. That wasn’t my world, no.

The next morning I said thank you and good-bye to the Potters, which again, wasn’t their last name, but I don’t remember what it was. I walked Helicopter and suddenly it struck me that Thanksgiving was coming up, and assuming that normal people went home for holidays I may know someone at the next city stop. I called up Dally, and left a message.

My last stop was at a Chick-Fil-A in northern Lincoln. I’d heard Nebraska Andrew had become the manager since he’d left Mississippi. Sure enough, he came out from the back, jumped over the counter and gave me a hug. We caught up at a table for the next few minutes, about the people we knew from Spring Break. Joel was here, Astrid was there. And he was here and doing well, and wanted to open up his own restaurant in the next few years. It was good to work for your dreams, we both affirmed. We said fond farewells, and I got on with it.

About g-mo

The day I was born, Michael Jackson's Thriller album was at the top of the Billboard 200. I've been trying my best to live up to that expectation ever since.
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