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.

IMG_0304

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.

b&w_porch

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Bartlesville.

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.

steakhouse

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.

yhatzee

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.

auction

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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There’s no place like…

Moving: the only word to describe what I have been doing for nearly four months, in a small car full of gear, trash, books and music. What is home, anymore? I don’t know, but I can say that the act of moving– through the air, through other people’s lives, through cities, through landscapes both alien and familiar– has become a kind of home. I am holding still right now; I am homesick for movement.

A timely prompt.

 

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Mood Indigo

green path miles

I didn’t think the fog on the east coast would feel the same as the fog on the western one. Everything else has been so different: the land is flatter than the west and yet some places, like Vermont, encapsulate seas of hills that collapse upon one another like tired lovers. The trees are different; the roads are different. Upon arrival in Portland, ME, we stopped at a park overlooking the bay and its necklace of emerald islands strung together with the white sails of wooden boats. I did not expect to hit a wall of humid air when I opened the car door. But within a day we were caught in a summer storm with cold wind and a heavy fog that draped itself over us in veils, the salty smell of the sea and the summer smell of roses following us everywhere we stepped. It felt like home. In this tale of places and people and things, I had forgotten what I missed, though I missed it dearly. Time and distance can do that. We had been to Buffalo the night before, preceded by a long stint in Michigan; before that Chicago, preceded by Nashville. I can’t remember where I left off in the telling of this tale anymore. Going backwards is a strange way to recount a story. It’s been so hard knowing where to start that for weeks now I just haven’t told a story at all. I simply rode along, watching the world unfold and thinking about possibility. But it’s important for me to keep writing and so I will think back…

Montana and Idaho and Wyoming and Montana again: we kept circling within these states as if we’d lost something and were trying to find it again. We had, actually: our senses of humor. We bit at each others’ ankles, turning feral when the need was to turn soft. It took a toll, which is going to happen to two souls traveling together in a Honda Accord. This vortex of inescapable northwestern plains and sharply clashing mountainsides turned me into a pillar of stony silence; turned both of us into unreasonable shitheads with big ideas and small words. A change was needed. The dart hit the map’s dot of Nashville. We were off.

It was in Nashville that I got my first taste of humidity in years, the real kind where you can’t tell the difference between being in or out of the shower; you’re always damp, you’re always warm; you can’t find a dry, cool place to save your life. You dream of stone churches and cellars. But the clouds were especially dazzling, drunk as they were on the humidity themselves. They threw silent, cracked lightning bolts into the distant air like spliced shockwaves frozen momentarily in neon glory. And in the tall grasses of the front yard of a friend, the dancing lights of fireflies sprang delicately from blade to blade.

We spent three days wandering around in the washcloth air. We narrowly missed a country music event that seemed to have taken over the entire city with a vengeance, leaving behind a trail of empty bottles and die-hard, dazed attendees wandering after one another in resigned ennui. We sat in an open-air cafe holding down our fluttering napkins and wobbling decorative vase as a tornado warning flashed continuously on the television over the bar. (It did not accumulate as promised, its frazzled edges swept up by the spring sky and pushed onward, so we took the opportunity to walk the rain soaked streets, recently emptied of patrons, dogs, and heat, and get ourselves lost in a bookstore.)

We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame in the last hour of the last day of the Patsy Cline exhibit. Patsy, my hero of heroes. Somewhere in America there floats a VHS tape of eight-year-old me hollering Patsy’s “Honky Tonk Merry Go ‘Round” on video for my emphysema-stricken grandmother in Washington D.C. After she died, all of her possessions were scattered to the winds, including that one moment in time that captured the bravest, most carefree me. Only Patsy could make me feel that way. I went to the exhibit expecting a grand, multi-room church of Patsy worship. Maybe something to rival Graceland. Something to honor the woman whose contralto pipes would have beaten down the pearly gates. Instead, they had chosen a small room sparsely decorated with some of her belongings, and a projector screen that featured interviews of people who talked more about her producer than of her. I was downright appalled, but I pored over it all anyhow. The handwritten letters, the items found in the wreckage of the crash where she died, three of her performance outfits (including her famous red two-piece cowgirl suit with the white fringe). A collection of salt and pepper shakers. Photos of her family. I sat through the short film with the interviews until I finally got what I came for: Patsy’s voice, totally alone, with no instruments. Crazy, Sweet Dreams, She’s Got You. Every sentence sung with supreme nuance and control, utterly untouchable. My hero, no matter who her producer or her fans or her husband were: the woman who probably held more influence over me than any other musician in the entire world. I left brokenhearted afresh at her death; the death, really, of every artist whose lives ended before they were done.

In Cincinnati we visited the home of a philosophy professor with a penchant for collecting typewriters. His home office was a veritable homage to a machine so cleverly created and so completely unnecessary in modern times, having the unique feature of being both clunky and delicate. All kinds of typewriters from every typewriter age rested side by side like small buildings along mantel, shelf, and desk. You could imagine your favorite author slouched over an era-appropriate machine, cigarette in mouth, frowning over the plunk of the key and the slide of the carriage. Miles purchased a travel-sized piece with a leatherette carrier and we exited the professor’s Writing Wonderland, hungry after all of that literary machination. We ate at a grungy, narrow diner in downtown Cincinnati, talking with the employees and owner about the city and its possibilities. We learned about the city’s high artist employment rate and I suddenly began considering what my life would be like in Cincinnati. (A respect and appreciation for artists prevails in many midwestern cities, a notable aspect of life outside of California that grows more appealing as news reaches us of San Francisco’s shameless Silicon Valley-pandering housing ethics, booting the not-rich out one by one.)

Chicago was large and fast. We had been meandering through small towns and city outskirts for so long that I forgot what it meant to be engulfed in the worlds of city block neighborhoods and intersections and mountainous buildings. We stayed at the home of Miles’ college friend, a high school science teacher and the owner of Lily, a gray Great Dane with a penchant for roses and a fear of small dogs. We went to loud bars and to quiet Thai restaurants, and felt like city people again. After the weekend came to an exhausted close, we headed to Ann Arbor for a night, and then sat down to sort out finances. That was when I realized I had finally hit the money wall. I had enough for two weeks of fuel and groceries and maybe some wiggle room for coffee and a couple of beers. But we had not yet reached the East Coast. I felt the floor open under me and all of the places I had intended to see flying past without a glance at me. We had been on our way to Miles’ friend’s farm in the flat, lush greens of southern rural Michigan and I had been looking forward to escaping the cities and suburbs. Now I was eying westward paths in a panic, racking my brain for ways to make money quickly on the road and trying not spiral into a depression, visions of a less than triumphant return bombarding my thought process.

After a spell of money worry-induced catatonia, Miles suggested we just go to Michigan and figure it out after we’d sat with the shock for a bit. I reluctantly agreed while pushing away terrifying thoughts of becoming a last-minute nanny, weighed down by diaper bags and rich parents’ egos. We arrived there under a heavy gray sky that never opened, wading into the mugginess and followed by a flotilla of chickens. We camped in the yard and woke to the sounds of birds and a particularly mirthful duck. Our brief encounter with farm life was a snapshot of everything romantic that city slickers dream of; we didn’t have to deal with the economic struggles or everyday hardships, we only had to appreciate eating food from a garden and watching moonlight on a lake twinkling with fireflies. I didn’t want to leave.

The morning of our departure we lay in our tent thinking about the intricate network of paths we had before us. Limited, narrow paths that would always be difficult due to lack of money or places to rest our weary heads, but many paths all the same. This trip across the United States has taught me a thing or two about lives and the notion of fate, and how one wrong turn can lead to the right things, and vice versa. I have met people who have nothing who have made something extraordinary. I have met people who had everything and did very little. I have met children of well-to-do parents, given the best educations money and intent can buy, who are still unhappy and lost. People whose goals and life-plans were great, all-encompassing sagas bent unexpectedly by as much and sometimes more ignorance as the poor, undereducated store clerk who hasn’t been farther than the edge of her town. I worry all the time about how far I am going to make in on the small amount of cash I have when I should be wondering why I think I am limited in the very place I stand. As I stared up at the dome of our tent, pensive and somewhat scared of where the next step would lead, I knew only that I was glad to be on a farm in Michigan. A place I had never wanted to go to, a place I never imagined I would be. I’m waiting to see what unexpected place will surprise me next.

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Three months; a few lessons.

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As we approach the three month anniversary of our departure, I have to keep pausing to think back on what I’ve accomplished so far. It’s sort of an exercise, a pumping-up of my Positive Thoughts brainmeats. Doing something as drastic as abandoning a decent life and hitting the road without a plan pretty much requires some mental acrobatics in order to avoid anxiety-caused hyperventilation. We’ve finally come up against our financial wall and we haven’t even made it to the east coast; we’re in Michigan, 843 miles from the coast of Portland, ME. And it’s true that, despite the relatively narrow odds of success– as a measure of comfort– I don’t as yet regret my decision. I do sometimes wish we could hold still for a while, though.

So, to celebrate, I remember these things.

1) I have been to many places I did not think I would like, and I loved them. I have spent many years thinking (without fault, really) that California was the very best place to be. How could anyone want to live in Michigan or Tennessee when California– well, Northern California, was hanging out over on the West Coast? What about Iowa? Or the Dakotas? All the news I heard of North Dakota made me think that I would step over its borders and be shot on the spot for having a uterus that belonged to my own self. Idaho, save for Boise, was built up in my mind as a giant citadel full of gun toting libertarian sociopaths, too ridiculed to live anywhere else without being pantsed or having a “kick me” sticky note slapped on their backs. Obviously these were opinions formed entirely in ignorance. I had driven through but not stayed in most of these places before. All of them turned out to be pretty swell, each one holding within it little gems of towns I even considered calling home for a bit.

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2) I have avoided the news. This is especially significant to me since, with morbid fascination, I could not tear myself away from those high-paid prophets of doom during the last ten years of my life in Santa Rosa. Perhaps living in a large town or city one can become so isolated, knocking around inside a series of boxes, that the outside begins to resemble those fears that strangers are paid to put in your head. At one point I couldn’t eat without wondering if I had salmonella poisoning, nor fall sleep without wondering if the batteries in my carbon monoxide detector were about to die, nor properly work out a plan for my future without wondering if there was any point when this country looked like it was heading toward Roman Empire-esque doom. Trips to my favorite coastlines involved a thorough inspection of plant life to see if it had diminished noticeably in comparison with last year’s vegetation count. And the heat! It was as though I had never felt it before the advent of the term “Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” But when one is in a car or a tent or too busy catching up with old friends to watch their t.v., it’s much harder to be afraid of the world. In fact, you can begin to see the hope.

3) I have made great strides in listening before judging. I recently went to a dinner party  filled to 80% capacity with white people arguing over who lived in a more gentrified neighborhood, and I did not roll my eyes once. Not even a little. Not even when one of them eyed me like I was a dead fish who’d just flopped into her Toms shoe, and informed me that entering my thirties without having saved 2.5 million third-world orphans meant that I wasn’t living my dreams. Not even then. In fact, I learned a lot about my past self in contrast with my current self that surprised me. Fourteen years ago I would have hopped on their noble bandwagon like a madwoman, yearning for the exhilarating glee of collective world-changing. There’s nothing like camaraderie in the face of fear, and if there’s one thing this world has taught me, there is a lot to fear if we allow it. But I now understand the subtleties of change and its many, many forms. Good change isn’t only achieved by megaphones and chants– though those are important elements, too. It is also achieved by laughing with your grandmother and by taking children seriously when they talk to you. Organizing your own self into not being an asshole makes a colossal difference in the great shift of the human paradigm. At then end of the day I realized I had met a group of people who just wanted to find their place in an increasingly unbalanced world– which is essentially what I am trying to do right now on the road. They were mostly all of them wonderful people doing good things in the best way they knew how, and I was glad I met them.

4) I have learned to appreciate pets. Before I left home I mostly didn’t pay attention to pets, save for the cats of a few beloved friends. That was because they were more like extensions of those friends. Mostly I felt overwhelmed by dogs and plotted against by cats. I have since met many dogs and cats that I wished were my own. Among these were Handsome Bob, a wonky old Lab mix who was unconditionally jolly and who ran as if his legs were made out of rubberbands being snapped by an unruly child; an English pointer puppy named Blu with a tiny voice; Lily the Great Dane, who pushed her head into our legs when she was shy and who liked to smell flowers; Yoda the cat, who laid exclusively on his back with his paws in the air when relaxing, and a feral cat at a cemetery, chilling under a copse of trees like a wild beast king– but when I called to him, he jumped right into my arms, as docile as a house cat. I miss all of these pets so far. Perhaps I am growing soft in my over-twenty-nine age.

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5) When driving across the country with your loved one, be a better person, even if he or she says they love you exactly the way you are; absolutely expect them to do the same. This is pretty self-explanatory. Driving across the second largest country by area in the Western Hemisphere, in a space that constitutes two phone booths on wheels, is bound to present some issues. And it should; otherwise you should pinch yourself to see if you are made out of titanium or some other such non-organic feely thingy. This trip gives me a lot of time to think about the things that annoy me; fortunately I have a boyfriend who is very good at delicately pointing out that that’s a two-way road. Do you ever wonder how bandmates and teammates don’t end up killing each other on a tour or away game? Well, I have a idea about all of that nonsense and I for one can tell you their secret– they cheat! They’ve got vans! And buses! And planes! And in some cases, drugs! We’ve been traveling in a Honda Accord for three months straight; half of the time we get out of a car and into a tiny tent. And we still love each other and make each other laugh, and we talk about everything we are going through. Even the hard stuff. And even if I have to be the hard-stuff conversation instigator. I have to remember that this is a person who I chose to do this life-changing thing with on purpose, after months of thought and planning. It is worth all of the bad for the incredible good. Though, yeah, sometimes I picture us as a comic strip, the road stretched out unendingly like Route 66 from panel to panel, silent and serious, our thought bubbles full of the symbols used with the shift key above the numbers on my laptop.

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6) I still really, really, really love food. Coming from California, the state where nearly every town top to bottom has some kind of sustainably grown, locally harvested food item shat from magical fairy butts directly into Mason jars decorated with wheat and organic cotton ribbon, many people would assume I would have cried when we left the bounteous coast. Fortunately, I am no such snob. My secret pleasure food is Kraft macaroni and cheese, after all. I’d driven cross country three or so times with my family and we were never rich, so the consistency of designer eats was spotty at best and almost entirely non existent on the road. I developed an appreciation for canned fruit, truck stop snacks, American cheese-wrapped meat products, and weird gravy that probably came in powder form before it was unceremoniously dumped on Pillsbury biscuits, a la half of Tennessee fare. On this trip, Miles and I have managed thus far to avoid fast food completely, but we make up for it by going to the place that has “Chix stix 4 bucks a lb”  written in hand scrawled letters on a cardboard sign instead. And it is delicious.

I’ve met so many kinds of people on this journey. Risk takers, homemakers, shy, coy, loud, mean, gentle, awkward, ignorant, learning, wise, weird, old, and young. If the purpose of this trip was to find what I want to do with my life I have strayed awfully far from it. I can’t say that’s a bad thing, though. It only means that, as I suspected, and in the manner of a true unschooler who was lucky enough to know no bounds in the world of educating herself (save for, obviously, eating habits), I’ve found that there are so many things to learn and I wish I could learn all of it.

Now. To make more money, in order to keep doing just that…

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Mountain Time.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
-Dee Brown: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

We have driven approximately 1379.29 miles since I last wrote. Our foray into the natural wilds and the concrete jungles of the West coast of the United States was lengthy, beautiful, damp, and draining. By then end of it– and I will blame the Great Port Angeles Meth Head Incident, not Port Angeles in its entirety, because I really ought to be fair– I was left totally numb and unable to write or draw or sing, and I had an unusual craving for desert air. That dissipated quickly but I knew there must have been something dreadfully wrong within me to want the arid skies of a flat and featureless plain rather than be near my beloved Pacific Ocean. Not enough vitamin D, perhaps. Or maybe all of the damnable Twilight references dotting the seaside towns.

Now we are in Idaho, by way of Montana. After upending our coffers and hearing naught but the clink of pennies, pennies which must sometime carry us to the East coast, we abandoned any thought of the western coast of Canada and made eyes at an eastern route. But it wasn’t just the lack of money that thwarted our plans. The car incident wasn’t only a blow to the windshield, hood, and roof of the Honda. It was the death knell of my creativity, a week of waiting aimlessly in a dusty hotel room watching ships drift in and out of port. My brain felt flat. Port Angeles, known more for its affiliation with the stunningly stupid teenage vampire books than with any kind of culture, lost its luster long before the six days of waiting were up (those auto body shops like to take their time). By then, the road had morphed into an old and weathered foe feebly waving its middle finger at us and smirking. Somehow that meth head had managed to not only destroy our car but to stomp the life out of my muse, as well. I was back to square one on my path to gather the remnants of it about me again, a tattered ballgown I had lost long ago. We headed numbly out onto the road. I was slow; Miles was slow. We dragged along, wondering where to go next.

seattleWe went to Seattle first, to try to jolt some life back into our bones. Seattle is a good city in that it has all of the correct city elements: diversity of cultures, beautiful landscapes and flora, interesting people and happenings. It also more closely resembles San Francisco than any other city either of us has been to (and that’s a high compliment). It was where I spent my first birthday away from friends and family, a sadness I chose not to wallow in but instead to ignore. We traipsed around the Seattle Art Museum on a friend’s annual pass. We visited the Experience Music Project, a birthday gift to me from my family and Miles’, along with dinner and a glass of wine at a place that featured music with lots of thumping noises and French sighs. We visited the Japanese Tea Gardens on the first full day of sun, and ate brunch with an old friend I had not seen in years.

Japanese tea garden

I enjoyed not being where we had been, and I enjoyed getting lost for a while. But since the last time I visited when I was a teenager, much of Seattle had been gutted and rebuilt into a city of condos. Block upon block of monstrous identical boxes with names like “Element” and “The Volta.” If they were people they would drive Priuses, shop at Whole Foods, drool over Google Glass, jog, listen to atmospheric neo-bluegrass schmaltz, drink overpriced whiskey cocktails, and have no opinions outside of what NPR suggested they have. They would be predictable. We went to Pike’s Market and to outlying neighborhoods, searching for that thing, that ineffable something a city can hold within it that makes you fall in love with it. By the third day, I was slipping back into the well of bleakness I had felt before leaving on this trip, and had felt again in Port Angeles. When it was time to go, I was ready.

We decided we wanted to see someplace different. We were finished with lush, wet forests and crashing waves. Montana seemed like a good destination for that change. On our way out of Washington we stopped at the house of a cousin I had never met before, a man who used to play music with my dad when they were strapping young lads. He and his wife lived on a piece of property in upper Washington flanked by lush marshland and a country road. They welcomed us with open arms, a relief after being strangers in cold lands. We ate dinner, played music, and laughed. We got to Montana two days later, ducking beneath the Glacier National Park welcoming bridge just before dusk. In the morning I found that I had come across a world unto itself, a time capsule of the earth as it once had been, and of a truth few people can see.

As with all National Parks, in Glacier I got the feeling that I was witnessing the end of something. Despite the occasional lodge on a mountain top or beer can in an otherwise impeccable lake, Glacier is a time capsule. You can lose yourself in the ancient mark of pre-human history. It is carved in the steep, dark mountain ranges and their craggy peaks, and is carried in on the late spring storms that whip the dry plains air into frothing sleet in course of an evening. It is a land of contrasts, where seasons pile on top of one another in a jumble of elemental discourse.

West Glacier was an alpine dream, a postcard landscape of towering mountains and big blue skies filled with tumbling, billowing, creamy white clouds. Its mountains were crowned in fading snow, and they donned mantels of new spring green, the valleys carpeted in bright grasses and wildflowers. We slept two nights on the western side before heading to the east. Going To The Sun Road was closed at the halfway mark due to snow, so we drove there along the bottom edge, landing in St. Marys campground in the early evening among tall, sun bleached grasses and birdsong, and trees whose white bark stretched tautly around old knobs, forming eyes that watched us as we passed.

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St. Marys was darker, but more telling. Along the mountain ranges on the eastern half of the park, a slice of icy, clear water forms St. Marys lake, and at her southeastern edge the land pools and flattens into the plains. Black, dark purple, gray, dark green, bright green, steel gray, pale blue gray, bone white, blood red, burnt brown: a mishmash of colors and textures layer upon one another from the ground to the ridge, showing in plain sight the formation of earth and the effects of time. The stark landscape, windswept and bent, struck me as lonely, and while I could not shake the feeling of sadness during our stay, I didn’t discourage it. It seemed like the way it was supposed to be. I think, perhaps, it might have been one of Glacier’s most beautiful seasons, before summer raised up its bright sail, and before winter would formally depart, still gusting and clawing at the landscape. We drove up GTTSR as far as the road would carry us, stopping occasionally for pictures, and once for a small black bear ambling across the pavement. We came across a gorge of tumbling white water and followed its path to a small waterfall, keeping a watchful eye for the mother bear and whistling as we walked. During our stay we were visited by a small red fox who trotted fearlessly from one site to another, hunting for food. I named him Rusty. We were visited by songbirds, some who sang us through a midnight storm. On our second morning, we woke to a new landscape: snow had sugared the hills and ridges. Suddenly, it was spring no more.

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And in other ways, still, Glacier is a land of contrasts. If you go to the history page of the government’s Glacier National Park website, a brief overview of the park tells you that it is a coveted natural landscape that was saved from destruction by George Bird Grinnell. Mention of the tribes whose land was taken first for financial gain and then for the white man’s posterity is brief and simplified. As usual, the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai tribes, as with the majority of tribes in the U.S., are a whisper in the din of a half-truthed American history. The visitors centers will tell you about the native peoples’ food gathering techniques; they will tell you about their beautiful garb. They will also glorify Roosevelt and other white men and will hail them as saviors. They will not tell you of the bone-shattering grief that is the cost of white men being here at all; of the cost, even, of having national parks. But as you drive along that bottom edge of the rough diamond that is Glacier, as you pass over hills that overlook bleak flat plains and sharp ragged mountains; as you rush past broken cars and crumbling houses on one side and rambling rich ranch houses on the other; as you swallow the emptiness of the land: here and there, tucked away beneath prying eyes and away from the people whose ancestors washed away Indian history like so much filth you will find rainbows of prayer flags in the trees. Green, blue, white, red, black; some faded, some bright, all of them a prayer for a better future, for healing, for love, for peace. All of them wrapped tightly against the storm.

Our last night in the park we were rained out– sleeted out, more like– and we had to find shelter before we were forced to sleep in our car. We stayed at the inexplicably named San-Suz-Ed Campground, where we were charged $50 for an uninsulated shed with a lightbulb and a faulty portable heater, no bedding, and a group bathroom that was a long and frozen walk away. If we had not been so worn out from the last week of wet and snowy camping I would have complained. But as it was, I needed sleep. Comfort could happen later. On a trip to the latrine– a half broken cement stall full of bugs– the near-full moon crackled through the haze of a frozen sky. I gave thanks for my inability to block beauty from the world with my massive amounts of irritation.

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We stayed in Missoula last, at the home of an aging hippie couple whose house featured gardens with small alcoves for sitting, and archways of white lights that led you homeward at night. Missoula has bookstores and art supply stores, cafes and bars, music, farmer’s markets, and the livelihood that any prosperous and thinking American might appreciate. I enjoyed it, but for the grumpy owner of Carlo’s One Night Stand second-hand clothing store, who impatiently eyed me as I perused the goods, and was annoyed with me after I said I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. “You only look, you don’t buy?” he accused. “Um, no, I buy. I just like the looking.” I eyed a pair of western boots greedily, then decided against them when I realized they could buy at least four dinners; and plus, why give that asshole the cash? I proudly exited the store, stomping down the street in my worn out, falling apart, fake-leather flats.

It was a much needed break we took in Missoula, departing for Boise, Idaho as soon as we’d had our fill of college town life. After a week in Montana we headed quietly into the flats of Idaho, the long, lonely road and the graying skies of late spring our only company.

Now we will see what happens next.

Posted in Camping, National Parks, Native American, Politics, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Go as you were.

For weeks now I have been trying to write about the zombie apocalypse of the Pacific Northwest. I have stopped and started, erased and rewritten time and time again. I can’t find the beginning of this piece and I think it means that I have to go farther back, to before the beginning. To the end.

To Santa Rosa, California.

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I grew up in Sonoma County, which sits between San Francisco and Mendocino on the edge of the coast. Now known for its rivalry with Napa county as America’s leading fine wine producer, it was once among California’s finest dairy and agricultural hubs. I grew up in the middle of this changeover. When I was small and my family would head out for a weekend adventure, I could see rolling green hillsides, vast blooming apple orchards, stretches of lovely old houses and barns, redwood copses and fields full of oaks and bachelor buttons, unrolling like an illuminated manuscript to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Now it is mostly vineyards.

I was born in the hamlet of Salmon Creek, a tiny oceanside community that branches off of Bodega Bay, which you might recognize from Hitchcock’s The Birds. We moved to nearby Sebastopol when I was four, and then to Santa Rosa, the administrative seat and largest city in the county. Home to Luther Burbank, the man who invented the Santa Rosa plum and the Shasta daisy, he was quoted as saying, “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”

I have no idea what Santa Rosa was like when Burbank’s career as a revered horticulturist was in its heyday. I do know that the looming performing arts center built in his honor was recently renamed the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, at about the same time that every major sports facility in the nation was named after other major corporations. I know that his house, still elegantly situated within the boundaries of his lush, well-kept historical gardens, is surrounded by the economic depression of a city that hasn’t learned to live with change. Across the street, a well manicured lawn known to locals as “Needle Park” sits in placid upkeep, somehow managing to mask the horrors that occur there with regularity. Not six months before I left on this trip, a seventeen year old girl was raped in broad daylight in that park, within view of Burbank’s house.

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Old networks with deep pockets have allowed antiquated ideals to prosper while new ones die quick deaths. Around and around it goes. Within this network there are different camps, all perpetuating this cycle: the historical societies that focus primarily on Sonoma County’s white history, until sheer ridiculousness affords the local Native and Mexican histories a small notation on some park’s plaque (for example: attempting to “honor Sonoma County’s rich agricultural history,” which is primarily built on the backs of Latino day laborers, officials commissioned a giant white marble hand to be placed in front of the downtown mall) white hand; the wine tourism leaders who would plow over every last vestige of the county’s diverse landscape to squeeze out one more bottle of wine; the “progress” touters who slobber at the notion of an expanded highway without considering trains or better public transportation; and city officials who grandfather in old school work ethics that damage public health and happiness.bodean  Then there are the public schools, some among the most deplorable in the state, with defenders in high places who are the kinds of people who would rather see damage done to children than to the perceived integrity the educational system.

To top it off, there is the deep and abiding love for the Sunday cartoonist of fairweather American ideal, Charles Schultz. It is a love that knows no bounds, and it the very same love that lashes out at a real arts scene. Artists are in abundance, but you wouldn’t know it by visiting. Unless they abide by strict and binding rules, such as churning out views of vineyards or something that does not offend or challenge or look different, they are not welcome. The same goes for musicians. Each scene that builds a following has no option but to move elsewhere or to collapse. Venue after venue is shut down mercilessly. Even among those trying to establish a better scene for artists, egos and differing attitudes simmer too close to the surface and most events take turns for the worse. As for galleries, save for a few gems here and there, you could go to every art gallery in the county and not be able to tell one from the other. Each, like a cultivated daisy, nods in unison on the limp wind of mediocrity.

This is not to say I didn’t play a part in my own unhappiness: when I decided to leave it was partially out of a desperation to find something better than what surrounded me, but I had already stopped trying to improve things long ago. In truth I love much of the county– and even the city– where I was raised. It was hard to leave. However, I was not prepared for what I’ve encountered time and time again on this journey. When I left Sonoma County I also left a great job, even though I had no health insurance, and a roof over my head, even if it was in a moldy, low income housing unit. In that life I had the freedom to resent a city for its lack of interest in youth, minorities, diversity, and the arts. I had the freedom to hate it for what it was actually achieving: gentrification and blandness. I knew of, but had not truly experienced, the ugly sting of debilitating economic depression that was sucking so much of the country dry. As we drove further north I began to see a different kind of ugly, something akin to a plague that rots the coast of the far northern regions of California and the Pacific Northwest. And, I am beginning to recognize, in parts of Sonoma County as well.

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When we pulled into Aberdeen, WA, the largest city in Grays Harbor county and the birthplace of the late Kurt Cobain, the streets were empty and silent on a Saturday night. Looming buildings that once represented the pride of a booming logging industry stood sentinel in shields of dryrot and crumbling brick. We drove past aisles of them, empty building after empty building, trying to find a place to eat that wasn’t attached to a gas station. We finally pulled up beside a Chinese restaurant whose sign was a jumble of neon brush strokes on the nighttime palette of black and gray. Inside, it was large enough to echo and the decor was jade green and gold with an elegant layout like that of a grand music hall. And it was empty. With seating enough for 150, the two of us entered like wayward dust bunnies in a vacated house. Save for the hum of the proprietor’s vacuum there was no sound. The lamps burned with past spirits; outside, paper shuffled down empty sidewalks, and tumbled into the doorways of deserted storefronts. What happened here? I wondered. Try as I might, I could not ignore the permeating desolation winding its fingers through my hair and around my arms, pulling me ever downward. Something like depression seeped into my head.

aberdeen Aberdeen was not the first place to strike me in this way. It is only the starkest representation of most of what I see along the Pacific Northwest’s coastline. Towns that once had something going for them are now deflated, distorted with hopelessness and cheap escapes. These places are specters of the American Dream still rattling chains in the attic of history. Drug use is not hidden in these towns because there is no reason to hide it. Many residents are trying to escape in some form or another, anyhow. Babies having babies– the notion has never been more apparent than in these towns, where those who could not find a way out found a way to become stuck. Aberdeen’s slogan, “Come As You Are,” is a ten-years-too-late homage to Cobain, whose memory was shunned by officials until they realized his ghost could offer financial boon.

To add insult to injury, these places that surely tried their best stem the tide of impending misery are sandwiched between richer, shinier, L.L. Bean catalog towns. Like Christmas installations at a mall, their depth is only cardboard thick and rests solely on the patronage of prosperous white vacationers and the contrasting gloom of their neighbors. These towns feature hotels named after seabirds and currents, with the same décor and the same features of the other L.L. Bean towns along the coast. Though they are seen as a brief respite from raw misery, they are no more comforting to me. They, too, show the desperation of a place tied entirely to forces beyond their own making, and they hang onto the purse straps of wandering RV-ers who have no wish to feel much of anything anymore.

I don’t want to be down on Aberdeen. It isn’t the only place that suffers so monumentally from ill fortune. In the face of so much nationwide economic rot in the last 13 years I am shocked that I haven’t been witness to more of it. But I know something about California. It has greedy, hiding ways. My beautiful, beloved California, who I know for a fact has grown to love rich newcomers more than me, a born and bred worshiper of its bounty. It dazzles with its plastic Hollywood interpretations of reality. A glance at history shows its ability to sustain glamor throughout the most desperate times, no matter what the cost to its people. In Sonoma County we heard of “tent cities” in California but were kept far away from the knowledge of their spread by the media. Sonoma County keeps its own problems hidden by promoting wine tourism in every way imaginable. Take the town of Healdsburg, for example: once a quiet, sleepy town with a lovely central park and quiet streets, it is now a horrifying circus of wine tasting sleaze, peopled with stretch-faced clowns in expensive tourist threads.

Strangers are shocked to hear of the strong current of heroin and painkiller addiction underlying such a beautiful place as Sonoma County. They are shocked to hear of the treatment of minorities. If you were to talk to the fishermen of the Sonoma Coast they could tell you about the realities of their steadily disappearing jobs. You could talk to the dairymen about having to auction off their multi-generational farms to wineries in order not to lose their entire lives to banks. One can look at Aberdeen or any of the fishing or logging towns along the Pacific Northwest and see with instant clarity the destruction caused by economic neglect, as though you were watching a zombie movie in slow motion. It is obvious, it is unhidden.

In Sonoma County, you must shuffle through the cultivated blossoms of bland prosperity to find the grit, and the beauty of truth, below.

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(I write all of this on the last night of our stay in Port Townsend, a place we may not have visited except for incidents beyond our control: needing a brief respite from the cold world of camping, we decided to splurge on a cheap motel in Port Angeles for one night. I was coming down with a flu, and we both needed showers and a bed. That night our car windshield and hood were bashed in by a man on large amounts of drugs and anger. No one in Port Angeles seemed surprised. We decided to hit the road in our rental car while we waited for our insurance to dispatch an adjustor. And so we take shelter in a town well recognized for its idyllic American prosperity. It is the nation’s largest wooden boat building community. It is clean and it is beautiful. L.L. Bean catalogs abound.)

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Civilization.

“I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel, to shower off the dust / and I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust” – Joni Mitchell (Amelia)

I wish I could write about experiencing true isolation and self-reliance in the face of a real, honest-to-goodness wilderness adventure. There is something to be said for fantasizing about surviving in the mountains with only a shoelace and a vague memory of child-rhymes to help identify poisonous snakes (Red on black, you’re okay, Jack!). This is probably because I would not survive, and like the dangling carrot, woodsy self reliance is unattainable. I like my creature comforts, and will unabashedly grasp for them despite my ability to chop firewood and bathe with only cold water and a kerchief-sized towel with the best of them. Our campsite choices thus far, mostly in state parks, would be considered by some to be the dude ranches of the inexperienced outdoorsmen. Flush toilets and warm showers? Oh, please. Why not say I was staying at a Hyatt? Never mind that one shower housed creatures resembling the black ooze-worms of X-Files fame. Never mind that after one particularly difficult night with lots of rain and no sleep, the hot water in the showers was completely gone by the time I arose, blinking wearily into the morning fog. One night was so cold that my breath froze along the part of my scarf that was wrapped beneath my chin. Two hours into a fitful sleep, something icy crept across my bottom lip and I sat up in gasping horror, awaiting my fate at the hands of the Nazgul. When I realized it was just my frozen-breath scarf, I sat in utter annoyance staring at the side of the tent that faced the snow-topped mountains across the lake from us. Those towering, icy Jell-O molds: they were to blame, and I hated them.

We have been following the lighthouses up the coast. Each one, wavering like a specter on an ancient horizon, has had a story to tell. Volunteers took us on tours and told us of the parts each lighthouse played in guarding the coast and bringing home wayward sailors, until its inevitable retirement. Some are still in use, despite sophisticated and more accessible navigational equipment. I asked one guide why this was so; why would it be worth it to keep each one of those hand-cut crystals polished and sparkling though they could only partially keep up with their digital brethren? “The fishermen,” replied the guide. “To them it means ‘home’.” Home. I couldn’t believe I had not considered this already, when some piece of my heart is always searching out that beacon.

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We will occasionally dig into our wallets to pay for a cheap motel, eating up their wifi and heaters like they were the wheel and fire. We scour tourist pamphlets and local bar banter for places to adventure to. On our hunt for Heceta Lighthouse, we found a tiny turn out with a tinier sign that pointed across 101 to a trail. Needing a break from driving, we ran across the highway like crazies, discovering yet another sign that read “Hobbit Beach Trail.” We could not have been more pleased, and off we went. Short, twisted trees draped in bright green moss bent over a narrow path, leading down to the most pristine, gloriously empty, broadly stretching beach I had seen in years.

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Fit for a Hobbit, for sure, especially if Hobbits lived by the Pacific Northwest. It had tiny paths leading off of the main, which of course we surmised had only room enough for magic bunnies or baby dragons or something equally mystical in nature. The beach was flanked on the north side by moss and tree-lined cliffs stretching as far as the eye could sea, and on the south by a looming, seaward facing rock formation, whose lower walls sported whorls of neon green sea moss, reflected in deep, bejeweled tidepools. Modeled into the the cliff were broad, ogling faces, liked trapped spirits.

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But it is unfair to so completely describe one small aspect of Oregon’s breathtaking coast. One campsite, tucked between farmland and sea, sported the dark, harsh foliage I had come to know and love in Bodega Bay and further north, near Jenner. Dark brown-red bushes and bleached, bone-white brush scraped at a steely gray sky, stark but comforting to witness. Other stretches featured turquoise lagoons and hidden coves full of shells and starfish. One small lighthouse, now defunct, sat squarely upon giant rocks at the mouth of a river where it met the sea, a stark and lonely landscape for the lightkeeper’s watch.

I have decided there is nothing more noble in government than state park volunteers. No one cares more for the land they oversee than they do. Without them these wondrous places would have long ago been overrun by industry and greed. They are the lightkeepers of the land. And everywhere, everywhere: we have been met with good wishes and stories and memories. I’ve learned more about the kindness of strangers since we left home than I have in my entire adult life. Our trek along the coast was met with so much enthusiasm I sometimes felt bad for griping, publicly or to myself. I try to keep myself in check, except on the particularly bad days when I’ve been kept up all night by mile-long trains running 40 feet from our campsite, or when I’ve broken out in poison oak along my limbs. (Impossible, it seems, considering I wear 15 layers of long clothing every day and night.)

But there is that darned rain. And the feeling of never quite getting dry during brief spells of sunshine. So after near-constant precipitation and a forecast only for more, we arrived in Portland on the evening of the 18th. Hallelujah.

Portland, the oft overlooked but much cleverer sister of fancy Jane Bennett cities like San Francisco and Seattle, is a confluence of adorable awkwardness and delightful ease. We arrived at a friend’s house on the edge of the city, casting our car-ful of belongings into our basement room before heading out to see what fruits of livelihood awaited us on the city streets. We found it in the overwhelming menu of Dionysian social goods and services, venues left and right, restaurants and bars and weird, weird nooks and crannies that permeated every turn. A bar that contained another, secret bar; a museum of vacuums; an alien-themed gift shop that offered marriage certificates. That elusive no-sales-tax mystery sat like a laughing God of Libertarianism on the shelves of every shop in town. I could not argue with this because, A) I am on a budget most extreme, and B) who would be stupid enough to argue with that, anyhow? A burger, a shot, and a beer back for $5 would probably can a business in a week where we hailed from. I soaked in the novelty of affordable entertainment and waited for the other shoe to drop. It did not. For three days we explored Portland and made friends. From the garden of a mansion perched above the city we drank in our last day, relishing the odd comfort of concrete, steel, and the bustle of lives being lived everywhere.

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For a time I was able to set aside a growing sense of anxiety about heading deeper into unknown territory and just walk around like a normal person in a great city. There was more to come– towering waterfalls, acres of tulips, a President-worthy greasy spoon, and more. But it’s nearly midnight on our last night in a warm room. I think I will go savor the hot water before I forget what it’s like.

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