Desert Oblivion

In the summer of 1995 I was fourteen and had long purple hair. I listened almost exclusively to Jimi Hendrix, Tori Amos, and old dead classical composers.  I dressed like a  skater boy. I read for five to twelve hours a day. I co-founded the Sonoma County chapter of NOW’s Third Wave organization and a sci-fi/fantasy literary magazine for teens called “Windchime”. I’d recently gotten braces. I was too shy to talk to anyone, so everyone thought I was a dismissive snob. Cherry on top, I was suing my school district for sexual harassment.

In short, I was the life of every party.

I was so popular, in fact, that most of my friends kind of forgot that I was going away for a portion of that summer. I was being sent to Idaho to accompany a family friend on her treks to the southern part of the state, collecting water samples in the desert’s canyons for her job with the Bureau of Land Management. I was homeschooled at this point, per my own request– well, “unschooled” was the term we used, as homeschool summoned distasteful ideas– and had a fluid schedule, so I wasn’t party to the desperate summer itineraries of my normal-schooled pals. We had begun going our separate ways and my new friends, also alternatively schooled, were always traveling and adventuring far more than I ever did, so they were nonchalant as I headed into the heat of summer Idaho. I swallowed my anxiety and decided I, too, would be nonchalant.

This was to be my first bona fide desert experience. I’d been through the desert several times before, crossing the country to visit family or heading up into Idaho to visit said friend, our orange-and-brown 1984 Vanagon breaking down in Winnemucca on two separate occasions. (What is this “Winnemucca,” you ask? Imagine a crumpled brown paper bag sitting in a 500 degree oven. If your brain keeps trying to add pretty cacti or a scraggly pine tree or two, don’t bother.) Going through it is different than purposefully being in it, though.  Coming from the mystical coastal Northern California, land of redwoods, fog, and possibly Puff the Magic Dragon, the desert always seemed as appealing to me as eating eggplant (how I feel about eggplant: set it on fire and walk away.) and as such, I was furtively apprehensive. By nature I am the one who gets into water one toe at a time. But I was surrounded by head-first adventurers, and I envied their freedom. I wanted to be an adventurer, too.

I mention this story because it figures into my future relationship with the desert. When I’m feeling romantic, I can summon up images of Santa Fe and Taos and not end up with a knot in my stomach. Otherwise, my associations with deserts are of isolation and fear, peppered with a paranoid view of military experimentation and Burning Man. However, with my recent trip to my sister’s wedding in Reno, NV, coming up, I had to find a way to love it. It was like trying to wring water from a rock. Dry, arid spaces make me feel claustrophobic in the way I imagine outer space would make me feel. Vast emptiness absorbing the oxygen and caving in on my being. Boise, Idaho, was a beautiful place with lots of cool people and approximately three handsome young guys that I immediately fell in love with for no other reason than that they were nice to me. I liked that portion of Idaho quite a bit. It was the desert that spoiled it for me.

When I finally got out there, this weirdo from California with unnatural hair color and a CD Walkman umbilical cord, I rapidly began feeling unmoored. Little by little, over the course of a couple of weeks, my brain began blurring what I was experiencing and what I feared I might experience. I didn’t hallucinate. I didn’t hear voices. Nothing like that. I simply couldn’t stop imagining the worst possible outcomes while simultaneously fighting against imagining them. In the heat and the dryness, everything magnified. The light seemed to brighten exponentially, the hot desert air to press in close, buzzing– what I now recognize as a sign of an impending panic attack. As soon as we would start the hours-long, bumpy ride out of the desert and back onto the freeway, it all subsided. I was completely normal.

To be fair to the desert, there was much more to contend with in my brain than most people had to by the age of fourteen: I had experienced the dark underbelly of an education system unwilling to take care of the bodies and minds of the children it represented; the violent death of a good friend at the age of twelve; the angry departures of my sisters to lives that they implied were preferable without the rest of us– an idea I had not considered and did not understand. I thought about dark things all the time, and thought it was normal to do so. While I wasn’t entirely wrong (I was a teenager, after all), I didn’t realize how much I had come to obsess over these things. Death, loss, and the fear of being completely alone became weighted hooks that embedded themselves in my soul. They pulled heavily on my heart and my brain.

And then one day, in the desert, my brain broke in half.

You wouldn’t know that there is enough water in the southern Idaho deserts to fill a sizable creek and to line it with enough coyote willow to choke a canyon. This is because the surface of southern Idaho’s earth is the color of bone and is textured like some macabre craquelure. But the canyons are lush and vibrant with life. Maybe a little too lush. On our second voyage out, we had come to an impassable section of the creek and we still needed to collect data from the other side. We’d made it through several snags already: walking hours too far beyond the point we wanted to be, according to our aerial map; waking up in the middle of a fire ant colony; and I had, personally, fallen into a beaver dam pool, grabbing a healthy stalk of stinging nettle on the way down and blowing my hand up like a rubber glove balloon, sending sharp stabs along my arm for a day and a half. But we’d made it. Now, our only options were to climb out of the canyon and walk its edge until we found a better spot– an hours-long excursion, wasting precious daylight hours– or for one of us (her) to try to forge ahead alone and find a miraculous break in the thick foliage. Plan B was enacted.

We found a shaded spot and checked my radio battery to be sure that, in the unlikely event that anything happened to her, I could find help. “Wait here, I will be right back” are words that we all say to all sorts of people without thinking. There was no need for her to say anything else. She was gone for a total of five minutes, and if she had been with any other person, everything would have been completely normal. Normal people would take the opportunity to relax, chew on a stalk of something that wasn’t stinging nettle, and enjoy the stunning vista. Unbeknownst to everyone, including my parents, my therapist, my best friends, and me, I was a special case. The words came out of her mouth and entered my ear like a runaway train. I nodded in what I hoped was casual agreement and then crouched in my little hiding spot, sweaty hand gripping the walky-talky like a life raft.

In my head, it really was a life raft. I clung to it as rapidly escalating abstract visions of death piled one upon the other, until the connection between my brain and heart twanged. Violently. It was as though the hand of god had reached out and plucked the throbbing veins of an electrical current. Suddenly, I stopped seeing. I didn’t shut my eyes or faint. I simply stopped seeing. My brain no longer accepted visual information. For about five seconds, I did not exist. When I came back into my body, I was screaming.

To this day I can’t remember if she heard me or not. After I came to, I was so shocked by my screaming that I clamped my mouth shut like a sprung trap. Body jerking with adrenaline that had nowhere to go, I scrambled to figure out the radio, and failed. I didn’t know what I would have said to a dispatcher, anyhow. “Please help me, it’s been two minutes and I’m scared”? So I sat with my hand over my mouth, crying, instead. When I heard the rustle of her footfalls in the foliage, I was flooded with relief and with wild, burning shame. After a brief, concerned reconnaissance in which I tried my best to appear fine despite my wet cheeks and shaking limbs, I did not talk about it. Self-hatred commenced, as well as a sense-memory connection with the desert and heat that, for a time, equated to nothing but abject terror. Somehow I made it through another journey there without completely melting down, but I realized there was a switch inside of me that I had no control over. It would be flicked on or off by a mutineer brain wave, which soon became a restless Peter Pan shadow sewn onto my every move.

I can recall now the beauty that I was sometimes able to recognize, and even get lost in, on that trip. I went home and wrote about it in a short poem that an annual publication was kind enough to add to a collection of far more worthy submissions. I saw the hand-print hieroglyphs of ancient natives on isolated rock formations. I saw my first bald eagle. Though we were told we wouldn’t see one, that they hadn’t been seen in that particular region in over ten years, we crossed paths with a mountain lion who paused in her hunt to watch us, the lines of her sinewy body bright with golden evening light. The night sky was akin to what I’d read about in nautical stories and I would imagine I was afloat on my beloved Pacific, though the scents of canyon flora gently belied my earthly position. I have grown to appreciate, and in some ways to love, that experience and that place, even as I wrestle with my brain every time I go back into the desert.

So when I learned that my sister would be getting married in Reno to the love of her life, I vowed that I was prepared to go anywhere. Even to the summer desert. Weeks in advance I began the long process of fretting, dreading, reminding myself ad nauseam of what I was looking forward to, hoping it would rain, hoping I wouldn’t spiral into the abyss. My panic attacks are few and far between these days, and I can go months, even years, without experiencing one. Especially if I avoid hot places. But I vowed that I would go because I love my family and because I wanted to be an adventurer. And it turned out it did rain.

And it was beautiful.


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Road Redux

I don’t know how to live in a city without shrinking. I’m already shy and prone to leaving parties early, without goodbyes. Yet in a city those dispositions are exponentially magnified. When I lived in California it was known by friends and family alike that two hours might be my max in a city before sprouting sharp teeth. Sensory overload, perhaps. I was born in a seaside snowglobe filled with fog; a tiny hamlet with no grocery store or bar or gas station. We left when I was four, first to a town that still had a train running through it, and then to a town with a freeway and a mall, and all I’ve ever tried to do since is go back to the snowglobe.


For me to be in a city, then, is to live internally. My thoughts are my comrades, my allies, my saviors. My enablers. My backward walk, zig zagged, into the woods. I don’t fear the outside. I walk around until I find the places that feel alright to be in. I go to bars with friends and I go to concerts. I do the things that keep me from disappearing altogether, because when left alone in a city I shrink as every part part of my mind splinters into smaller and smaller categories of daily nothings: Where to buy the cheapest gas and how to avoid traffic. What is for dinner and will it include the CSA veggies rotting in my fridge (will my boyfriend and I ever have harmonious schedules?). Keep the blinds drawn or buy some billowing catalog curtains to lighten the mood. Which way is west- I never see the sunset anymore. And as my thoughts shrink, my shoulders bend. My spine curls, and my head hangs like a tired mule’s over a barbed wire fence. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

2013_2014 001

When I was on the road and had only a car full of food and camping gear I felt huge, solid, and wondrously insignificant at the same time. In Maine I toed the shore of a tiny bay whose surface so perfectly captured the sky I felt suspended in air, light and transcendent. In Montana I sat in the shadows of jutting, angular glaciers and felt my mind unfold like an origami box and stretch upward. More of this, I keep saying to myself as I relive these moments in my mind. I want more and more of this. Sense memories will flood back into me at unexpected moments – the hunger I felt for everything I saw and for what I hadn’t seen yet. I hope I never lose them.

I keep remembering the land. Getting lost in Taos while trying to find something to eat, and finding instead a road that deadended in a desert full of sage and a sky full of evening fire. Arriving at the edge of Arizona’s canyon lands, the yellow earth kicking up behind me as I walked toward a fat, glowing moon traveling up the breast of a lapis horizon. Walking quietly, gently through the moss kingdoms of the Pacific Northwest as soft rain fell through reaching branches onto the crown of my head. Driving alone out to the edge of the Great Prairie with only dust and buffalo for company. And the scents. I could smell the raw earth in blossom and in death. The bite of eucalyptus. The black, shadow scent of decaying leaves. The musk of honeysuckle that makes your lips and bare skin yearn for touch. The electric bouquet of the midwest’s midnight storms. All without the permeation of industry. Alone upon the open earth, on light feet, I had nothing caging my thoughts or my body: I was free, and the highway of my thoughts knew no bounds.

Here, in the thrum of the city, I am back to splitting and splicing and organizing every thought until it resembles what I had tried so hard to escape before: a worn page of erasure. Though there are aspects of city life I have come not only to love but find that I sometimes need (music, so much music), I don’t see the endless opportunities in it that others seem to flock to cities for. Instead, I catch myself sifting through recollections. I bring up the smell of nasturtium, sand, and juniper. I recall the feeling of heavy fog blanketing my shoulders as I walked along deserted beaches shrouded in indigo twilight. I live in my head, knowing full well that’s no way to live. I wander around in the attic of my mind, and then I snap out of it, go to work, come home, and try not to wait.

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Portland, Music, Futures, Pasts: A Love-hate Story

My parents loved music nearly as much as they loved their four children. My mother had grown up on the East Coast and come from old Southern money. She was, miraculously, thankfully, the black sheep of the family. Motown, Soul, and any other kind of music that didn’t involve Barry Manilow or orchestral strings were socially verboten- so she listened to them often. It’s what got her through whitewashed summers in Virginia, and through the horrors of being sent to juvie at age fifteen for running away from her alcoholic mother. My father was the son of a civil rights leader and a no-nonsense but loving artist, and his obsession with jazz, modern folk, and rock and roll were encouraged, despite his fears that his parents wanted him to straighten up and fly right (read: become a teacher). He worshiped the guitar slinging of early 1970s beauty Bonnie Raitt and he bought himself a Guild with what was probably his rent money. When my parents met it was like the meeting of oceans: it ought not to have happened, but something beautiful occurred at some point, anyhow.

I don’t remember many concrete things about my life before the age of five, but I remember music. My father had a vinyl collection that anyone who had once hoped to be a famous musician in the 1970s would own. All of the classics, and some treasures few would recognize. I remember the light of the coastal sunsets bleeding through our curtains as my older, wiser sisters placed the sturdy discs of vinyl, held delicately by the rims, on the turntable and carefully placed its needle on the correct ring, like a baker icing a virgin’s wedding cake. In addition to all the Beatles and Allman Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, there were other, lesser known gems.

One was “Stealing Fire” by Bruce Cockburn. Most kids’ parents that I knew listened to 1960s pastoral folk or had older siblings who obsessed over the Pixies, Michael Jackson, the Sex Pistols, or U2. I bopped my four-year-old head to a little-recognized Canadian songwriter whose album was created as a reaction to the horrors he witnessed in 1980s Guatemala (while the U.S. turned a blind eye). This album included the ballad – I sigh – “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” which remains one of the most painfully passionate stories I’ve ever sung along to (and which U2 stole directly from) (Well, okay. With permission.). It was also a song absolutely no one my age ever heard of, except for one guy. A guy who in every other respect was pure, grade A, unadulterated loser, dripping with the kind of lackadaisical male greasiness reserved for after-school television specials about teen pregnancy.  He also happened to be great looking and broke my young, dumb heart. He nearly ruined the song for me. But I was older than him by a small bit, so I rightly reasoned that the song was mine. And really, no one cared, because who is Bruce Cockburn, besides a tragically spelled surname floating around in Canadian music spheres? In effect, the sounds I was drawn to as a child were in direct opposition to what was considered popular. It is a trait I carry grumpily through every aspect of life.

My head has always been a maze of contradiction. Even when I am working on a piece of art, its creation is formed in an indecisive kiln: drawing a portrait of Art Blakey, I listened to System of a Down. Inking an album cover for a friend’s surf metal fusion band, I listened to Vivaldi. I want to feel the weight of wool in the summer and the weight of light in the winter. I hate ice cream and love butter; I only like the weather when it includes both blue sky and rain, at once. I always want something the minute I can’t have it: an embarrassing, child-like habit I fight with miserable results. My contrary brain knows no bounds.

All of this meant that my big trip across the United States – on the hunt for a new life – would consist of unending internal struggle. Every choice (that little town instead of this one, this cheap diner instead of that one) felt like a missed opportunity. I was a tangle of worry at not having experienced the thing that would transform me into… what? A happy person? A content one? I already knew that those were not things I was aiming for. I had no idea what I wanted, only that I didn’t want to work in retail and that I wanted to be feeling things, anything at all, besides stagnation. The trip was successful in that way. I felt many things, like massive amounts of frustration and sadness at being on the road, and then, toward the end, panic at leaving the road.

Damned, damnable contrary brain.

But the decision my boyfriend and I made was that, if we didn’t hate each other by the end of the trip, we would choose a place and try it out for a while. We never ended up hating one another; in fact, I probably have never been closer to anyone in my life. However, there were moments when I stood on the edge of an abyss (canyon, highway, vast body of water, etc.) and wondered what it would be like to go it alone. I decided against that, though, because there would be no one to passionately argue with. And that’s an essential part of life.

So here I am. That mysterious ribbon of road ended one year ago today, in the city of Portland, Oregon. I am fascinated by this city, intrigued by its storied past and frustrated by its willingness to commence with homogenizing its culture for the sake of money, much like the city we left behind- San Francisco. Portland is dirty and beautiful, and is technically a “city” but is still small. It retains- much like myself- an identity crisis profiled firstly by contrariness.

It wants to be progressive but it is 85% Caucasian. This is still better than most of the Midwest, but not by much. (Many white people in Portland still say, if there is a menacing person somewhere in their vicinity, either “There’s a black man over there doing a bad thing” or “There’s a person over there doing a bad thing” depending on- you got it- their skin color).

It wants to support artists and musicians and various weird, little-man food truck creators and does a truly amazing job of it, but that support appears to be on the quick decline. As with the crooked old gingerbread houses and marbled architectural wonders that crowded this old city, these people are replaced by shinier, flatter, louder, more modern versions of themselves. People who did not grow up here and have arrived to do business, make money, and leave. (I recognize the ridiculousness of me, a person who just arrived here and hopes to make money, speaking with such disdain about said people- but if you’ve been reading my blog then I hope you catch my drift.) There is no love for the broken, the tired, the people who’ve fought and fought and who are still trying to build themselves up but who rarely see the end of struggle. There is no extension of welcome from these enterprising newcomers; their love lies in the tourism trade. The whambamthankyoumaams of society. The condos of entrepreneurship, as it were.

Yet I still love it, even if it’s a slow death that I revel in. Where I came from, California wine country, social and creative circles were pocked with small town rivalry and suffocated by old-boy networking government. There were bright beacons of hope here and there, but wherever I went I felt cast out, side-eyed. It left me all elbows and no soft spots to recommend me for social embraces. So I left the place where my heart was planted to follow my wandering brain.

This city is broken in so many ancient ways. They aren’t very original breaks, I must say. Like so much of the United States there are entire cultures buried under the cement. First, the plowing-over of Native tribes for some uninvited white man’s dream. And now, the gentrification of neighborhoods that for generations have hosted families of color and people whose life goals did not include the invention of useless apps, squeezed out to make room for brunch spots that host hungover white hipsters with elbow patches and a love of tiny, handheld computers.

But I discredit those who fight back by focusing so often on the negative. There are stories being ignored by everyone; there are hidden dreams everywhere. They sleep in dark corners, waiting for the dawn to brush them off.

Portland is a love song written by someone far more talented than me, for someone far more deserving of the writer’s love, but which I will listen to unfold as I chase, chase, chase after my ever-wandering brain.

Happy one year anniversary to my four-year-old self.

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Thoughts on Normalcy, Death-Style.

Today I learned that an old family friend, a kind of acquaintance-friend who my family had a falling out with, died while hiking a high-desert trail in Arizona. She had been on that very trail before. She was an experienced adventurer who loved the outdoors and was familiar with nature’s fickleness. But it was 97 degrees – in December. She was 68. According to the papers, she’d become lost, a fact that I can’t quite pair up with the stalwart, determined, capable woman I knew in my youth. I can’t stop myself from imagining her last day, her last moment. I can’t help myself because I once cared about her very much.

Death has become like any familiar stranger in my life. You know the type: a person you see everywhere but who you aren’t interested in pursuing in any social construct. Death sits in the cafe, doing the crossword, wearing that jacket I like but am too shy to inquire about. Death is at the concert I am at on Saturday, one arm propped on an amp like it’s no big thing. (The way Death taps a beat annoys me to no end.) Death, like me, shops at cheap stores and feels guilty for it but still can’t hand over $200 for a decent pair of USA-made jeans. So, like me, Death tries not to think about the children who probably manufactured these products. Death is a normal weirdo like the rest of us. I bump into Death from time to time, in different ways, in different scenarios. I am not interested in getting to know Death better. But Death is still familiar.

I shouldn’t be shocked when Death does the job that Death came to do. Not to be dismissive of the weight of Death but had if I a friend who worked for the IRS I’d hate them for a while, in April, in a similar way to how I hated Death upon reading this article. The abrupt nature; the shitty delivery. Couldn’t you have let me say something to them first? Why did I have to read it on the internet? Did you at least make sure they hallucinated something beautiful, something comforting, something that made them feel like God as their last breath clawed its way into the burning desert sky?

I just wish that sometimes Death would be a little more tactful.

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Longing. Belonging. Be longing.

In the photographs the sun is the color of amber, and it melts into our hair, the bent and twisted cypress tree, the window panes, our limbs. My sisters are shy but proud, and the buckskin dress that they take turns wearing over their jeans and sneakers encompasses those gilded limbs like it’s just waiting for them to begin dancing. There are a few photos of only me. I am not wearing the dress.

It is a traditional Hoopa ceremonial dress, the hem of which is decorated in a simple pattern of dentalium shells and hollowed acorns that click softly together with movement. A small party at my sisters’ feet. I was too young to understand the importance of the dress – the hours and years of work that go into hollowing the acorns and prepping the leather and knowing what pattern to use and the long, long history of meaning that meant so much more than textbooks could illustrate – and so I wasn’t allowed to put it on. I was allowed, however, to slip the ceremonial basket hat onto my head, it’s tight weave wrapping around my crown like a protective layer, the patterns of darker grass on lighter a sort of spell to shield me from evil. In the photograph I was three years old and my still-blond hair was a brassy red in the setting amber sun, my pale skin belying the truth of me– I was not Native, not really. Though Hoopa blood runs in my veins this photograph shows the simplicity of my reality: how I was seen versus how I felt.

I didn’t yet understand my history. I did not know the bonds that tied nor the chains that imprisoned. I didn’t yet know yet that part of being Indian is experiencing history through the land and the stories, through the hardships, through the pain, through the ceremony and life of the reservation. I did not know that knowledge was not enough. Without that physical connection there is little to recommend me for a place in the Indian world. I did not know that in that time. From the observer’s viewpoint I was just a little white girl, in dirty jeans and a white tank top no bigger than a potholder, standing outside my parents’ cottage by the sea, grinning through the melting light. I looked happily into the camera lens and brushed curling blond hair from my face, smashed childlike beneath a delicate, old, weighty crown on my unknowing head. I will always be her – suspended between, not a part of either, and entirely entwined in both.

Basket Hat 3

Basket Hat 2

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I Love You, Tomorrow

“I got static in my head / the reflected sound of everything”

– Elliott Smith, Tomorrow Tomorrow

“It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

– Nevil Maskylene

merry go round2

The town of Pawhuska welcomed me in solemn solitude as I rolled along its streets, dust as thick as years billowing out from underneath my tires. Beautiful old buildings, whose heyday marked the advent of Jazz and change, now sit like shells on a forgotten beach, waves of silence crashing against their hollowed insides. Pawhuska, meaning “White Hair” in the Osage language, lies thirty-one miles southwest of Bartlesville. It is the heart of the Osage Nation, whose agency was established there in 1872. The highest census count of Pawhuska had the population at over 6,000 in the 1920s and ’30s, back when the Osage County oil boom was in full swing. Those were the meat years, maggoty meat years that sprouted from the bodies of murdered Osage families whose oil- and mineral-rich lands the encroaching white men wanted. These poignant parts of history are not mentioned much in Pawhuska– or Bartlesville, even though its own history is rife with white theft at the dawn of the black gold era.  The population of Pawhuska has steadily declined since the ’30s. Now there are more empty store fronts than people on a Saturday evening.

downtown Pawhuska

It is early September, and the gray highways that led me alone to Pawhuska are long, curving, sleep-heavy limbs flanked by the pale teal shafts of Little Bluestem grasses topped with ivory down. Beyond those runs a bright yellow border of perky compass flowers at attention. The dueling purples of hyssop and agastache sprout gaily from dried, cracking ditches, between discarded Natural Ice six pack boxes and old cigarettes.

Horses hung their gleaming chestnut faces over the barbed wire and watched me as I drove by. When you are alone on a mostly empty highway, the world appears to expand infinitely. Like the sea, the natural landscape of the midwest holds possibility in its vastness. Late afternoon sunlight gilded the sloping hillsides, and in the presence of so much beauty, with the humid wind lashing my unbound hair against my face, I couldn’t hear my persistent loneliness or fears. The horizon kept me steady.

  yellow flowers

Before long, the highway T’d into a ribbon of bone-white dust. I found myself on a gravel road resting at the edge of a midwestern abyss: the prairie.

Tallgrass road

Pawhuska sits on the edge of what is left of the untouched great American prairie. Once part a 400,000 acre sea of waving grasses that ran from Canada to Mexico, it is now a protected 38,000 acre remnant called the Tallgrass Prairie Reserve. All around it, the farming and ranch lands– and even public recreation areas– of Oklahoma and Kansas are dotted with small pumpjacks like tall, robotic marsh birds, emitting the foul stench of unrefined oil. But there are none of those on the reserve. I came upon it by accident, while trying to outpace a feeling of intense discomfort in the house by hopping in the car, picking a highway, and driving down it. The need for escape so overwhelms me here that I regularly nearly book it for the Tulsa airport, before recalling that I don’t have the money or the guts to abandon everything before it has played out accordingly. I did not go to Tulsa today. Instead I drove to Somewhere Else until I arrived at the sea of grass. There I sat on the hood of my car, and watched the light play on the dancing bodies of grass and blossoms.

purple flowers

I have decided to leave. Recently I had a bad case of the break-downs and stopped sleeping because, according to the universal law of Murphy, that is the best way to process the emotions of defeat. I hadn’t known I was a participant in such a contest, but after being in Bartlesville for nearly two months, I realized the contest was with my own self. I was losing.

I had wanted so badly to make something of this trip, but here I am: jobless, friendless, and living in the house of a person with whom I appear to have a strongly opposing magnetic field. There isn’t much in the form of escape because the town of Bartlesville closes at two in the afternoon every day of the week– including Saturdays– save for a smattering of restaurants and bars. The nearest thing to an art gallery is a selection of sentimental, sloganized reproductions of landscapes shoved into a room. Additionally, the dogma is overwhelming at times. There are ninety-two listings for churches within a five mile radius of our house. Yet in the spirit of what seems to be true Christianity, there appears to be almost no resources for the socially outcast. A Universalist Unitarian church is down the block. I saw fliers for a domestic abuse shelter fundraiser that took place in 2011. But aside from that, there is nothing here but God.

It has defeated me, this godly oil town. I do not handle defeat well. Perhaps, because I very rarely seek or expect success,  the moment I want it it becomes that much more unattainable. A few days prior to the mess I now find myself in, I had traveled alone along highway 75 into the cement heart of Dallas, Texas, to pick up a friend at the airport. Dallas is a globally recognized “Alpha world-city,” is home to Einsenhower’s birthplace and the frozen margarita, and is one of the hottest places in the United States. I had not intended to go to Dallas– or Texas, really– in my life, but it was not as bad as I predicted and it did not disappoint in size. Everything really is bigger in Texas, including the sun and its earth-cracking heat. The freeways are huge; the buildings are huge. I got lost in the huge airport that night. A sudden summer storm, coupled with poorly timed improvements to what appeared to be nothing, shut down half of the city’s major roads leading in and out of DFW, an airport with its own zipcode. For nearly two hours I drove in miles-long rectangles trying to locate my friend; when I did find her, it was midnight. Upon trying to return to our hotel room, the roads continued to bat us about like an evil kitten with its twine for over an hour.

But it was the drive to Dallas that broke the seal on my sanity. Five hours of undisturbed midwest is hard on me, especially with only my brain for company. A poor conversationalist, my brain opted to whisper evil-nothings into my frontal lobe for nearly all five hours. Everything I hated about my life presented itself like a crowd of Jehova’s Witnesses on the doorstep of my psyche. I found suddenly that I could not shake the feelings of despair upon driving back to Bartlesville, to face the awkwardness of not really belonging. The internal drip of anxiety began leeching into my entire being. I was paralyzed by a central nervous system that seemed to be suffering from the effects of a speed-like drug, and in my mind I resembled the cheek-chewing neighbors we always had in the poor neighborhoods of my youth. I was jittery, and babbled about nothing. After my friend and I arrived, everything between me and my temporary house mate fell apart. Communication. Understanding. Empathy. And on my end, the ability to eat. I couldn’t stop myself from unloading my anxiety on my boyfriend, whose presence in the house had been exponentially more well-received than my own from the beginning and thus made him a lightning rod for complaints. All of us began stalking the rooms like recently mutated enormous insects still concerned that our human counterparts were going to step on us. I was the one that shivered maniacally from the corner like a cockroach in a tub. I knew the water was coming, I just didn’t know when.

I tried to balance being a good hostess with my fancy new bodily behaviors. No sleep and lack of food hard wired me for burnout, I knew, but I plowed ahead. Escape came in the form of outdoor excursions in the hot and humid Oklahoma air. One such journey, a trip to a bizarre museum whose grounds housed bison and African animals, kept us transfixed for hours. The inside was a mishmash of local white and Native history, dusty byproducts of the U.S.’s tragic and unending game of cowboys and Indians. A bronze life-sized statue of “The Oilman”; dusty dioramas of local tribes’ ceremonial scenes. A crude, motion-activated, miniaturized mechanical pow wow in a giant glass case. Navajo blankets whose provenances are probably shady at best, statues of pioneer women holding shotguns and babies. A massive underground gun and artillery collection. And in a quiet corner of one room sat a grouping of Northern California tribal baskets, including a few from from my tribe, Hoopa baskets from the early 20th century. I stared at them, intrigued and disturbed, as if I’d traveled to another country and found my own toe in the window of a boulangerie.

Hoopa baskets

After returning my friend to the arms of the Texan skyways, I returned to the well of discomfort, with a body unable to cope with any of it. I slept and drank tea and watched junk movies and suddenly realized, with relief and enormous sadness, that I had to go home. That there was no where else for me in that moment. But it wasn’t a clean decision. Murky thoughts of failure, of all the places I had not visited, marched through my head in quick and repeating succession. Never in my life had I wished so desperately for that dream of American dreams– independent wealth– because I realized a split second after I announced my decision that I would have continued to travel if I had had the means. My heart was impatient for familiarity but it argued with my feet, which tapped a loud transient tattoo against the floorboards of my recently disquieted life. I had turned around and caught a glimpse of something much older and wider than my heart and mind, and me, standing like a ghost in the forefront.


I know I won’t be returning home home. California, I realize, is no longer the home I have loved so well for so long. This journey has peeled my dry eyelids apart and burned a sad new reality on my retinas. On this journey I have seen things I didn’t expect. (That seems inevitable, of course. But who doesn’t have 20/20 hindsight?) I have felt the surge of desperation as so much of America runs from the tidal wave of muck that is economic inequality, and the resulting increase in magnification of other inequalities. I have seen the tracks of those inequalities stamped all over the map. And in California, it is as bad as anywhere; in some ways it is worse. Overwhelming snobbery; exclusion; the encroachment of the rich upon the areas where mixed fortunes and lifestyles– and opportunities– could once mingle; the dangerous penchant for expanded prison systems and shrunken educational options. Crowded open spaces. A backwards obsession with youth and money. The blatant disregard for those whose invaluable stories spring out of time and earned wisdom. The destruction of the unassuming communities where I grew up in favor of a cocky and careless tourism industry.

I no longer know for certain what my home home is.

But more importantly, I want to know more about the people who reside across this terrible and magnificent swath of continent. Not the shiny people on the television. Not the loud people in the newspaper. I can feel the pulse of restless impatience that lies just under the crumbling surface of the mighty U.S. highway, that thirsty arterial system of American connection and discovery. People are dying for the magical resurrection of their dreams because there is less and less left to hope for. Strip-mined mountains cast shallow shadows on destitute mining communities, still living with the bitter taste of abandonment in their mouths. The rights of women and girls are dissolved in the acid of an archaic psychology, their bodies bought and sold with political monies as though they were pieces of a draconian Monopoly game set.  American Indians throughout the country have been shoved in a mid-century quagmire of crippling policies brought about by willful governmental ignorance; even here, in the state known as “Native America”, tribes are usually viewed as novelties despite the fact that they are an imperative part of the economy and society.

red Indian

But it does not end with American Indians; it is all minorities, and the poor. The poor, who constitute a larger portion of the population than we ever dreamed possible. Throughout the mid-west and beyond, advertisements for diabetes treatments and anti-abortion sentiment litter the areas where people are the poorest. I see gilded churches where people can’t afford to feed their own children. This kind of revival of a medieval American thought process greatly restricts forward movement, and I watch as so much of this country slogs backwards, eyes shut, fingers crossed. Somehow, though, my entire being waits in this darkness expecting the warming beams of hope to fall across my limbs.

I can’t stop that hope to save my life.

The porch where I sit and write has been transformed by the morning sun into an avant garde jail cell, directly out of a Clara Beau film. Shafts of white light and black shadow crisscross the slots of the venetian blinds, the shutters, and the railing, right angles at attention. I wait for Clara’s specter to arrive, to make a grand gray-toned entrance as I tap away. In the corner sits a painted cement swan, a tiny burro, and a potted aloe.

We sit and wait. All of us waiting for the inevitable future.


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old city hall bvilleHumming trees line the sunburnt streets. They hum in waves, their song swelling, reaching a disorienting crescendo before ebbing back into soft silence: the music of insects. If there were a mascot for this city it would be an amorphous bug. Bugs abound in Bartlesville, too many to choose from for proper representation. Today I watched a plump little junebug fall on its backside, too round to flip himself over. I didn’t help him, just as I didn’t help the cockroach that eventually died in our bathtub; that guy received an impromptu burial in the garbage, in a toilet paper tube coffin. Moon-eyed kamikaze grasshoppers spring at any large object with inexplicable ferocity. There are colonies of murmuring cicadas living in the plant life. Our friend, who opened up his home to us two weeks ago while we try to earn some much needed cash, brought the carcass of a cicada in to show us its glossy wings. Like miniscule Art Nouveau window panels, their segmented opalescent spans reflected morning light as they pressed along a sleek, jade green body. I tried to imagine the hundreds of such creatures that shook and rattled the trees surrounding us. The backyard, dusty and patchy and shrouded in layers of blown-in garbage, is the setting for their summer symphony.  I sometimes sit and listen under the cover of the dancing trees. Beauty, it is proven time and time again on this journey, resides in many unexpected places.

vine flower

We arrived in Bartlesville on the night of July 14th. The air, like the air everywhere else in this part of the continent in summer, is thick and slow. The air is easier to accept than to struggle against, like many things here. A recent bout of bedbugs that plagued so much of the south left its mark on our friend’s house, and we were told to march all of our linens straight back to the car after lugging them in. That night I couldn’t find sleep for hours, and in the morning I woke disoriented. Nearly four months of being on the road was difficult to shake off. My heart wanted to wake underneath redwood trees or in the shadow of a craggy mountain, or on the edge of a windswept, empty plain or a glinting span of sea. I woke instead to Bartlesville. To get my bearings, I took a walk through downtown under a blazing sun. The heat, alternately damp or dry depending on the passage of ghostly clouds, reflected off of everything: the cement sidewalks and walls, the streets, the cars, the treeless lawns. (Trees are not a feature of Bartlesville. They exist where necessary and are otherwise absent.) The town is a soulless palette of beige, brown, and gray, and everything has a sheen of neglect. The featured architectural structure, the jutting Price Tower built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1960s, has been woefully ignored. Even the water, as clean as they claim it is, tastes like the dregs of a drying pond.

I didn’t believe our friend’s insistence that we had arrived in a shithole. He should know, he said, he’d lived here for most of his life. I did not believe his insistence that most of the people in this town were stupid, or at the very least, remarkably unaware of the world outside of Bartlesville. I thought he was being unusually harsh. Then again, I did not take into account my easy acceptance of this man, an acceptance not bestowed on him by this city. He is a unique and quirky and kind individual who does not try to achieve a normative outward appearance, and so he is stopped and questioned by police when he walks home at night. With my own eyes I’ve see him eyed suspiciously by shopkeepers and general strangers. By the end of the first week here I found myself wishing I had purple hair and black lipstick, if only to show solidarity.


He was right to be dissatisfied by this city. The stupidity he speaks of is the cruel edge that stems from ignorance. Many people speak proudly of the hospitality; they are all white, and they all fall into a widely accepted social category. Everyone else lives on the edges. Every block has a church, and most businesses stipulate the need to hire churchgoers in their ‘help wanted’ ads. Most young people are married and having children before their lives have had a chance to take a personal, independent form. Most businesses– restaurants, book and clothing stores, anything that is not a bank or a part of the Conoco Phillips oil empire– close at 2 in the afternoon and don’t open at all on Sundays and Mondays. You can’t buy chilled wine. Liquor is not sold in grocery stores or corner stores– and not at any time after 8. Or on Sundays. (A strange phenomenon called the “3.2 % beer” is what is available in groceries.) There is very little social life outside of church and the occasional dive bar. There is a farmer’s market, which is wonderful, but the featured musicians are always Jesus preachers.  And no one, not anyone ever, wants to stand out in any way, shape, or form. A city in hiding from itself. So we drink gin and tonics and Tecate, and play board games to pass the endless humid hours.


Now that we have been here for over two weeks, my situation has begun to mete itself out with a worrying clarity. I need money. Soon. And the options for acquiring money are mostly limited to nursing and heavy machinery operation. There are some positions in restaurants and cafes, including one that calls itself “Indian” (meaning, by the old racist standard, “feathers, not dots”) and touts a clumsy cut-and-paste logo reminiscent of a befeathered Flintstone’s character. I can’t bring myself to walk into it, for fear of devolving into a sarcastic, caustic jerk to some poor defenseless barista. Most job ads state the need for a four year degree in something that is probably inconsequential. Other ads end with the all too familiar requirement that perpetuates a tired Midwest stereotype: “Church experience preferred.” Even the art leans to the martyrdom side of things.

jesus painting

Desperate for a job, and of course finding nothing in the paper, I applied at the first place that held a sign in its window: a Goodwill clothing store, full and part time positions available. I arrived to drop off my application and was promptly turned down. “What are these two hours you can’t work?” demanded the manager, an aging, owl faced woman whose happiness did not show when she smiled. Two hours? Surely that doesn’t matter. “I will be taking two one-hour classes at the Y, but only from eight to nine in the morning,” I replied, certain that there was no way I wasn’t getting this job. She smiled like a crocodile. “Then we can’t possibly hire you. All of our employees are available at all hours, every day of the week.” A laughable prospect, or sad, I couldn’t decide. But as I left, trying to sort out why I felt so snubbed, I realized that it wasn’t hours all of her employees supplied: each wore a glinting cross around her neck, while my own was bare. I was clearly not enough of a believer. Add to this the fact that I did not foresee the need for a job when we left on our journey, and therefor had not prepped my bags with an interview-ready outfit, I was nixed from the moment I walked in.

And so I find myself sitting and staring out windows, listening to bug song.

Some things are wonderful here, as with everywhere. Summer storms, a constant source of awe for me since I did not have them growing up, are plentiful. In between soul crushing bouts of heat, of course. They begin as the evanescent glitter of a distant party thrown in the heavens: wavering sheets of pale yellow, pink, and green light silently illuminate billowing mountains of clouds, striking back and forth for hours along the horizon. Then the breeze comes, running its fingers along the windchimes on the porch. And without further ado, the storm arrives fully armed in pomp and circumstance, cymbals crashing. I could watch these storms for days. Our street turns into a little river, with tiny boats of trash skittering over the surface on their way to do battle with the sewer.

Other good things: everything is cheap. Anything that is not sold in a box store is cheap as dirt. Our friend showed us the best places to find used goods, explaining that he tries to pay no more than a dollar for anything. I didn’t believe him at first. $3 seemed perfectly fine for an oak end table! Why, even $5! Me and my silly Californian ways. Now I complain when a summer dress is a dollar fifty. We went to a real, old time auction (maybe “old time” isn’t correct, I just don’t know anything outside of Ebay), complete with a fast talking auctioneer. I learned about the “auction chant,” that string of sound that is mushed between numbers. It’s called filler and is meant to excite a sense of urgency within the bidders, especially with the added razzle dazzle of a group of ringmen who shout out when a bidder raises a hand. There are competitions for auctioneering, and the seamless authority it takes to run one was evident that night. It didn’t work on these Oklahomans, though. They fanned their faces and lazily eyed the other bidders. Some sat in soon-to-be-auctioned sofas and gossiped. But I was spellbound. I watched, thrilled, as the auctioneer, a woman of about 50 with a fat ring on her hand and a crisp hair-do, auctioned off goods like she was folding laundry or playing bridge with old friends. Spouting out the chant, pounding the gavel with an ease that I suppose came with time and experience. But beyond that, what was being sold, and what it sold for, had me in a tizzie. I nearly went and took out all the money I had in order to outbid the tiny sums being drummed up for huge, beautiful pieces of furniture. $55 dollars for an antique, hand-carved, mirrored bureau in perfect condition. $70 for a pair of nearly untouched leather chairs from the 1930s. I felt every California antique shop weep in agony. It made me greedy. I stuffed my face with Honey BBQ Twists and bought nothing.


There’s a burger joint along one of the dusty main streets that is a favorite for a specific demographic here in Bartlesville. Sandwiched between a junk store run by methheads and a parking lot, it is essentially a plywood shack held up by years of peeling paint and good faith. The state of the inside isn’t much better, but an attempt at style has been made with bright trim and pictures of Hollywood standards on the walls (Elvis, Marilyn, etc.). But I don’t look too closely at the floor, or the walls. I look at the customers, a motley cross section of Bartlesville residents whose families had probably never been too far beyond the Oklahoma/Kansas border. The waitresses are young and they both have broken teeth. They all say “hon” and “how ya doon, what else kin I getchya” and one moves too slow and the other too fast. They are sweet and hardworking. They look as if they are trying to put something behind them. I wonder if they are being protected by some forcefield here, the owner, maybe, or some patron. I have to suppress an urge to overtip whenever we go there. I am poor, and no one likes pity. Or at least that is what I say to myself.

But there is something that Bartlesville, and probably all of Oklahoma, has that Sonoma County, and probably all of California, does not. Humility. It lacks snobbery. There is no room in Bartlesville for such a useless attitude. Being able to put food on your table is more important than discerning whether your artisan wine is organically grown or not. I was startled to discover what an enormous relief it has been. But after all, snobbery is what was so disenchanting about my beloved home state, that incomparable “god among men” that California truly could be. She could really be something, if she didn’t make me feel like a stranger.

So, thank you, Bartlesville.

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