HCS (IV, vi): Running On Empty

“In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own,/
I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on.”
-Jackson Browne

Salton Sea, 5:30 AM

From Tahoe I did drive to Carson City, but only to drive through it. I kept glancing at the temperature gauge and just settled on the fact that I needed to get someplace warmer if I was going to keep stubbornly sleeping in my car. So I drove south on 395, crossed back into California, and drove and drove and drove. It wasn’t getting any warmer after 200 miles or so, and at a gas station I took a good look at a map before I laughed to myself. I was driving through the Sierra Nevadas. It was late autumn. This was cold country— are these roads even open after November 15th?

I drove until the sun set and found a truck-ish looking gas station 20 miles south of Bishop to sleep. The night was cold and without Ryan to chat and drink with it was suddenly a little lonelier. I bundled up with Helicopter in the far back and we got the best sleep we could. When I woke up it was 4 AM but I was awake so southward.

I thought about who I knew in this corner of the country. What was down here…Bakersfield, Los Angeles, San Diego. Los Angeles, of course— I called Celi to ask if Helicopter and I could crash there for a few days and she delightfully agreed. So I began pointing the trip more toward I-5; admittedly, I was sad to see Yosemite go. At one point I saw a sign for a trail around a Red Rock Canyon; a bit more isolated than Colorado Red Rocks, but why not. Heli and I hiked a few miles in the California mountain desert, alone in the brisk cold, just far enough into the trail to not get lost, and then back out to the van. And then like that, on and on, toward Bakersfield, and eventually the San Fernando Valley where I caught a coffee shop to do some blogging. One promise to myself that afternoon— it was out of necessity, but I needed to figure out a place to settle and write for 12 hours a day instead of burning gas and money wandering around. Soon, I promised myself. Los Angeles for a bit, then down to San Diego to visit my old college roommate Chris Knight (I would have headed straight there to be honest, but he was in New York until December 3rd.) Staying strong, I told myself. I think seeing Dally and Ryan and Jane had made the adventure a little easier on the soul— the reality was I need to settle in the Southwest and write.

I met up with Celi in downtown Pasadena and I followed her to the house she shared with her boyfriend. We went out for drinks and had a good talk about the old times, what was in the confusing future after Biloxi. Over too many drinks I let it slip that I’d made out with Rissa, which surprised her, which in turn surprised me— I’d assumed she knew, it seemed like an inconsequential piece of information. She asked if Evelyn knew, and I told her that she knew I’d made out with someone, but I don’t think she knew it was Rissa. This would have been really bad, after all, everyone being friends and everything. Celi nodded.

The next day we went sight seeing in Los Angeles. I’d never been, so it was all very fun and interesting. Santa Monica has beautiful buildings, and a lot of homeless people. Helicopter got kicked off of the beach, which was lame— dogs and beaches went hand in hand in my experience, but there was nothing to be done about those silly laws. We skirted down to Venice Beach and walked along the boardwalk, past skateboarders, tattoo models, and muscle playgrounds. We drove through UCLA and Beverly Hills, we went down Sunset Boulevard, Celi pointed out the club where Kramer from “Seinfeld” had had his huge freak out the week before, and the original Tower Records which was sadly closing. We got Helicopter involved in the tourism, which was fun, but by and large Los Angeles seemed too spread out to me. The interstates were an additional mess, and the merge lanes were always too short. We went back to Celi’s house and had a low-key night. I think wine was involved and I drank too much of it, talking with her boyfriend about how he coached Dean Cain’s kid in a sport of some sort.

The next morning was slow and lazy. It was now Friday, and again I had the itching feeling that I’d worn out my welcome. Celi and her boyfriend were both very gracious hosts, and insisted that I could stick around. To be honest it was a bit depressing hanging around suburban Pasadena until Chris got back to California. Not enough adventure. So I did laundry, bought them lunch, and by 4:00 or so was back in the van. Again, I hadn’t the slightest idea where I was going, and not an inkling of a solid plan. I did know that I’d rather sleep in Astro on the side of the road than impose. I hated imposing.

I blogged this before I left:

i wrote a poem my sophomore year in college that I keep thinking back to, something about cactus eyes, iris horizons and masked tomorrows, driving through a desert as the sun sets over the flatland. “Ode To Durango, Southward.” I really liked it, I did well with colors on that one. anyways, my life’s kinda like that I hope, except instead of romance, everything has become solitude, love for myself but not in an egotistic way, more in a worth it to know yourself way, becoming more self-sufficient. I think it’s important to make sure you’re worth it to the people you love, because when you are you can give that much more back to every interaction you have. and i want to be worth it, everyone does but i need to do this to know that.

I waved good-bye to the two of them and started west on 210 toward the Interstate. 20 minutes in, I pulled off in San Dimas and bought some tall boys at a liquor store. I texted my Dad and told him I was in San Dimas, which I knew he would love because of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I smiled and made my way toward I-10, blasting 80s music as the traffic stretched out further from the city.

I recognize today that things were beginning to unravel.

*                                          *                                    *

I drove happily toward Joshua Tree. That was where I would go to pitch a tent and wait out the next few days. Helicopter sat shotgun, and we kept the windows open with the heat blasting. We listened to Taj Mahal and Sufjan Stephens. We were adventurers, and I kissed her on the head for being my best friend.

I drove and drove, passing the lights of Palm Springs and the strange casinos. I charged on past and the haze fell behind us. Ahead, the dark desert. The interstate began to climb up, surrounded on the sides by plains of nothing darkness. The mile markers winked now and then. By then it was sort of late, and the idea of negotiating my way into the park after hours wasn’t as appealing. I drove past the exit and committed to pulling off into the Chiriaco Summit rest stop. I viewed sleep as not necessarily a thing that happened at a predetermined time, but whenever I got tired. So I pulled into the rest stop, walked Helicopter for a little bit, listened to some music, turned off the van and fell asleep. This was probably 9:30 pm or so.

I woke up Saturday morning around 4:15. I got out of the car and pissed, and then continued on the Interstate. I turned around at the next exit to head back West to Joshua Tree. Driving and listening to music. I brooded, and then pulled into a 24 hour gas station to fill up my 2 liter 7-Up bottle I had been using for water. Inside the gas station, I got some coffee and beef jerky, and asked when they started selling alcohol. 6 a.m., he said.

I went outside and looked at the paper McNally map. I didn’t want to bum around until Joshua Tree opened, so I decided to drive down to the Salton Sea. I’d always noticed it on California maps and wanted to see what the big deal was. I got onto Box Canyon Road and cut southwest from I-10 toward Mecca. It was still dark but sky was beginning to glow faintly. From Mecca I started down Route 86. Unfortunately, the highway was set apart from the actual sea by a few miles in most places. There were a few good moments where I saw the water. I saw it at a point in the sky with purples and wisps of fading night; it was ephemeral beauty. I marveled at the landscape, pulled over and leaned out the window of Astro.

Heli and I went and got gas at 6:05 A.M., and I took a walk with her. I went inside and bought some drinks. Comfortable with the situation now, I continued driving south, confident I’d run into something interesting eventually. Then the thought hit me that as great as Joshua Tree might be, there was something that would definitely be better, and that thing was Mexicali. I had already researched this possibility and knew that getting the Copter there and back was the biggest risk. If they didn’t let Helicopter back into the country, then I would just live in Mexico. Which wasn’t ideal. The rules were that you need an up to date vet seal of approval, within the last 48 hours, in order to get her back across. So now I figured that I would find a veterinarian in Calexico or El Centro, get a certificate, and then go to Mexico.

I considered this plan over the miles. Why the fuck not. Maybe I didn’t even need the vet certificate, I could just drive across the border and never look back. Maybe I could convince Catholic Nick to fly down and meet me in Mexico City. We could do that road trip we talked about, book it through Central America, hope for the best in the Darien Gap but figure it out. Maybe, maybe. I smiled and nodded my head, driving South.

My mood shifted as I passed I-8. Now all the streets were constructed in square block grids, to a point. I felt like I was driving through a model. The sun had continued to rise and everything was flat and dusty, and sort of broken. Border towns are like that, and the desert north of the sea might have been something like that. There were more signs in Spanish than English. It was ok though. I pulled into a gas station to use the bathroom. I looked in the mirror in the bathroom. I looked a little disheveled, and maybe a little blurry, but ok.

I lost some gumption on my way back to the van, and by the time I got back in I found myself calling Helicopter to the front and hugging her. I breathed and looked at her.

“What should we do, Helicopter? Where should we go? Should we go to Mexico? It’s risky. We love risks. But I don’t know.”

All of the sudden I felt lonely. Very lonely. Heli licked my face and meandered to her bed in the back seat. This was an intense moment. Was I going to check into a motel and finish the book? Which town was the right one? Did I belong in the desert? I didn’t have a friend for hundreds of miles, and I had a bad feeling in my gut. I must rally past the loneliness, I thought. I must find something. I turned the radio up.

Steve Winwood was walking the streets alone as well. In all of the despair I felt, I found myself smiling. Steve Winwood was wonderful. I smiled and thought of Dan Sherman back in Biloxi, of Dan and I on stage at Just Us, of how we were so different and yet, so the same. And most importantly, that I was sure, I was so goddamn sure that he knew the finer things would shine through. I texted him just that and forcing a smile, put Astro in reverse and pulled out of the nameless gas station. I nodded through the chorus for a moment before my phone lit up with a response.

They do shine through, the way my soul gets lost in you— Steve Winwood does know what’s up. Hope you’re doing well out there.

I smiled. Steve Winwood was great. And I did have a friend that could make me smile even from afar. Would I be able to get that if I crossed the border? I was happy to think of Dan.  Sometimes, in some instances, a person’s importance doesn’t even have to be in your face. To know that person, to remember that person can affect your life in every step, wherever you are, however near or far. That is why your legacy is so important, that is why the everyday kindness matters. I can say with some certainty that a deft combination of Steve Winwood and Dan Sherman electronically persuaded me to at least stay in the States. I turned Astro around half a mile before the border, and Heli and I began northeast toward Yuma, Arizona.

When I got to Yuma, I got off the highway and decided to go to a reservation casino. I crossed a trestle and descended down an embankment into the parking lot of Quechan Paradise Casino.

My telephone rang, and it was Karissa. I picked up and talked to her and Ali Meehan. I was particularly happy to talk to Ali, almost desperately so. There was something in Ali that I always related to; there was a struggle like my own, and I could feel it. There was one night where for no reason I burst into tears talking to her late one night on the Hands On porch. I was wasted and it was the fall. I asked Ali why she wasn’t in Arizona for me to meet her, why she had to have gone and headed back to Biloxi right when I was in her state. I told her I was at a casino and wasn’t quite sure where I was going next, but that the adventure was on. She told me to stay safe, and I promised I would.

In the casino, I wandered around to the various gaming stations. Everyone else there at 9 am on a Saturday morning was retired and plugged into the machines with cards around their necks. I drank and gambled some, wandered a bit, but worried about Helicopter in the van. So I left and got back into the van.

I decided to drive to Phoenix and find Benjammin’. I cruise controlled the speed limit and stayed out of the fast lane. I called Jammin’ at the city limits, and he didn’t pick up, so I left a message. I didn’t want to wait around and I hadn’t talked to him in a year anyways. So I looked at the map for some familiar towns. Bisbee was a little too far east. But Prescott was there to the north. Prescott! Artists! I drove toward Prescott, off the monotonous interstate and on Routes 60 and 89. I stopped for gas again and bought more drinks. I got back on the road and flew down the roads toward Prescott. I was drinking and laughing and telling Helicopter all about the adventure. We were done with Mississippi and onto the road, the story, the life, the life. I blasted “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters and screamed the words to the sky, to that song and every other song. The sun by now was getting close to down, and I got to Prescott around 5 pm or so.

Once I got there, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I didn’t want to stop, and I felt like I should keep driving. I did a couple loops around the city center, but didn’t get out of the van. By this point I felt a bit trapped. I didn’t want to pay for a motel. I didn’t want to hang out in the van and not drive, because that looked suspicious. It was easier to drive through the deserts than to stay in one place, that was safer. So I decided to drive to Vegas, rustle up something fun to do there.

The sky got darker as Heli and I roared on. By this point in the trip, we had been driving since 4:30 a.m., discounting the 45 minutes in the casino in Yuma, and logged about 500 miles. This did not matter, what mattered was the road, the road.

Once we got past Bullhead City, there was a problem. We were well on our way up Nevada state road 95 when I spotted a sign announcing a police checkpoint 10 miles ahead, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone but my dog. Helicopter and I pulled over and figured out the new plan. We backtracked 50 miles past Bullhead and back to Golden Valley, then came up on the other side of Mohave Lake. It was an extra hour and a half, but I was proud of my sense for what needed to be done in the moment. I was so cognizant of everything. Plus this way, we got to drive over the Hoover Dam. But it was dark, so we didn’t appreciate it as much as we might have.

We got into Henderson and soon after, the lights of Vegas below us. Pristine desert diamond. Yes. I got stuck behind a limousine on the Strip. I parked the van and walked into a casino, just to see a casino in Vegas. It wasn’t really notable, and on top of that I was suddenly conscious of my generally disheveled state of being. I slunk back to the van, and climbed back in with Helicopter. We drove through a McDonald’s drive through and I got two McChicken sandwiches. I gave one to Helicopter.

I didn’t really know what to do in Vegas since I (a) didn’t want to gamble, (b) didn’t want to leave Helicopter alone too long, and (c) didn’t want to pay for a motel. So I continued sipping and drove out of Vegas. It was late and I was tired. We headed down the Interstate, and when we got to Primm I pulled off and parked near the edge of the parking lot at Buffalo Bill’s Casino. I walked Helicopter a bit, marveled at the bigness of the midnight sky, and then we got back into the van and I fell asleep.

At 6 am we got back on the road. The sun was suddenly awful. Everything was suddenly awful and my head was about to explode. We crossed back into California and in Baker I saw the famous Bob’s Big Boy’s thermometer. I should have been more excited, I pulled off the interstate and drove into downtown. But when I parked to go look at the thermometer I was suddenly sick, and bent over and vomited all over the abandoned lot. It was so hard that I fell to my knees, with the desert sun behind me and Helicopter staring quizzically out the van window. I looked around, but there was no one to see me. For this I was thankful. People are probably at church, I thought. It’s Sunday morning, of course they are at church.

I went into a Burger King and bought an orange juice. I climbed back into Astro and put it in the cup holder; I couldn’t do anything but take small sips. I cleaned out the car. I looked at Helicopter and she looked back at me very confused. I felt suddenly like a terrible father.

“Don’t worry, baby.” I said to her. “It’s time to find our motel. It’s time to find our space. Let’s go write this book.”

I thought about driving north to Death Valley but thought better of it; today, we needed to stick to civilization. We continued down I-15. We passed a town called Zzyzx, and I thought I was really losing it. We drove on and on, and sometimes we passed exits but mostly we passed desert rock mountains. Barstow was where we would go to write this book. So we got to Barstow. In Barstow there were plenty of cheap motels and liquor stores. There was a dead dog in the middle of the street.

I pulled into a gas station, filled up, bought a pack of cigarettes. I walked back out to the car and put my hands on the back windshield. I hadn’t really eaten meals in days. My body was turning against me, and I suddenly felt the deepest, loneliest fear I’d ever felt in my life. I thought of Rainer Maria Rilke: that is when loneliness receives the rivers. I felt that. And for some reason, this new thought appeared in my head, even scarier than the numb lonely fear. It was a basic thought, a basic thought that seemed realistic when I thought about it: I’m slipping. I’m fucking slipping. If I slip, what would happen to Helicopter?

I got in the car and called Dally. She picked up thankfully, and I pretended things were going great and that life was more together than it actually was. I told her I thought I missed people, and maybe this plan to be alone and write wasn’t as well-conceived as I had originally planned. The desert was vast and swallowing, I told her. She said I should do what makes me happy. I thanked her, and told her I was thinking of coming back East. Then I called my mother and talked to her. Told her I was thinking of coming back East, that the desert was lonely. She said I always had a home at home.

I didn’t want to be in Barstow anymore, so I drove south on I-15. I saw signs for Apple Valley and it seemed like a happy place to go, so I pulled off and headed down more block-style desert roads. Apple Valley wasn’t particularly happy, it was just more houses in the desert. I drove on to Route 247 and cut through the mountains on a two lane road. After an hour or so I made it down to Yucca Valley.

I looked at the map and laughed. Literally laughed out loud to myself, which was probably more crazy than funny. Over the previous 30 hours I had put almost 1,000 miles on my odometer. And to what avail? Where was the final destination? There wasn’t one, because here I was back at Joshua Tree, but I was on the north side now.

I went into a Starbucks in Twentynine Palms. I blogged.

Biloxi was so far away. There was no Katrina here. I looked in the mirror at the Starbucks and I barely recognized myself. My beard, my hair, deep purple circles underneath my eyes. I started to fear that I had lost track of who I was, that I’d spent so long identifying myself by association that now I had spun off into this new thing. Weeks ago, there had been an immaculate logic to the escape, and all of these cameos, all of these characters had played these crucial roles in the journey. It was all a great story, this adventure was worth it. But that Sunday morning, I felt I was climbing out of an oblivion I hadn’t realized I was in. The memories of the road were bits and vignettes here and there, like pieces of a colorful magazine in a lottery bucket. Had I synthesized anything? Was this even an adventure worth telling?

I put my hands on the walls around the mirror and stared straight into my eyes, staring so hard and keeping my eyes open long enough so that they would tear up, so that I knew they would still become tears. I thought about the people from my past. I thought about Suzanne and Evelyn. They were good people. I felt I had stopped being a good person somewhere along this journey. Good people didn’t live the way I had been living. Burning gas and living a novel.

In that moment, I decided to go back East. I needed to 180, big time, and the West had not become the answer. Then, halfway across the parking lot I paused with a new epiphany: Evelyn.

As a side note, the fallacy of thinking that someone or something can reset your misdeeds was not unfamiliar. By having good people in my life, maybe I would become that good person too. It obviously never worked, and usually led to heartbreak, guilt, and a feeling of emotional failure. But I didn’t think about that. Instead I thought, maybe it would work this time? I loved her, I thought. Maybe instead of running away from Mississippi I was running away from Evelyn. No, I would not die in this damned desert. I would go East, I would cross the Atlantic, and I would see about Evelyn.

So I turned East.

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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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