you are where you’re at

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You Are Where You’re At was published in Passing on the Fire, a collection of my journalistic writing which appeared in places like The Seattle Weekly, The Clinton Street Quarterly and the Ellensburg Daily Record. If you’re interested in learning more about Passing on the Fire, and/or would like to purchase it, go here: http://www.hcolompress.com/Books.html

You Are Where You’re At

A weekend skirmish down the traffic-clogged Oregon coast in search of peace and solitude convinced us it wasn’t there, and an over-nighter in a Cascade campground with swarms of helmeted bicycle urchins zinging in and out of our campsite ruled out the mountain option. So we decided on the desert for our week’s unpaid vacation and shot south on highway 97, veering east at Klamath Falls, Oregon, onto the mountain switchbacks of route 140.

We made it to Adel, our drop-off point into Nevada, parked and stepped into the only building in sight, the country store, there since 1891 with, judging from the cowboys hunkered down at the ancient bar, few changes in décor or clientele. We sat at the counter and were served coffee by a big, raw-boned man.

“How far to Denio?” I asked.

“Denial” he said, “is a good piece down the road.”

“They got a MO-tel there?” Jasmine asked. Denio looked on the map to be even smaller than Adel.

The counter attendant gave a trace of a smile, and the cowboys who’d been there sipping beer since 1891 smirked.

“Yep,” came the answer. “If it’s open. This being Monday, it most likely ain’t.”

“Well,” I said, “is there another motel between here and there?”

“Son,” the big man said, “ain’t hardly nothin’ made by man between here and Denio.” He topped off our coffee and drifted back to join the whiskey-drinking cowboys.

***

Joseph Campbell tells a story about a rain-forest pygmy who’d never seen more than twenty yards of open horizontal or lateral space in his entire life losing all sense of balance and falling into a swoon when one day he unexpectedly meandered out onto an African savanna. Catapulting out of the mountains into the vast sweep of mile-high country of north-central Nevada gave us a taste of how that pygmy must have felt. The sudden up-shift in scale rocked our equilibrium. It was as if we’d been flung into outer space along with a handful of miniature mesas and buttes, making 80 MPH seem like slow motion. Tiny is the way we felt, tiny and vulnerable. We slipped Van Morrison’s Too Long in Exile into the tape deck, rolled a couple of cigarettes, and felt the clutter of our busy minds begin to fall away like space debris.

“Those health-food junkies who say you are what you eat,” said Jasmine. “They’ve got it wrong. I think it’s more you are where you’re at.

We drove along in silence for about ten miles after that, and then Jasmine said these terrifying words: “Are we out of gas?”

I whiplashed back into hardcore reality. We’d left Adel with half a tank of gas, and now we were riding on empty. Not only that, another gauge indicated the engine was running ice-cold. We were streaking through No Man’s Land with darkness swooping down on us in a tiny speck of technology called a Toyota, and the Toyota was going haywire. The civilization we’d been longing to escape was being stripped away, right down to the white line in the middle of the road.

“Be careful what you ask for,” I murmured, my under-developed mechanical brain doing its best to figure out what in the hell was going on.

Jasmine laughed. “This is the opposite of what those self-help books tell you to do. Our hope is to get into Denial, not out of it.”

Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker were oblivious to our plight, grooving on each other and belting out a knockout version of Gloria.

Twenty miles out of Denio the engine began to sputter and cough all the gauge needles went horizontal, and I had a satori-like flash of understanding. “It’s not gas,” I said. “It’s electrical!” I turned off the headlights to save what was left of the battery, and we roared along through the darkness.

***

Denio is a speck of a place with a gas station, a curio shop called Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, and a motel with no name at all. All of it was locked tight and dark. We coasted to a stop on the last drop of battery juice in front of the motel, took a deep breath and let it out again. We were about to transfer the ice chest from the back seat to the hood and recline the bucket seats into makeshift beds when another car (one with headlights) pulled up. It was the motel maid, come to do cleaning, and her husband. They let us into a room (there were no other guests) and told us to settle up in the morning when the owner returned from Winnemucca. The maid’s husband, an Oregon-coast fisherman who’d shipped oars ten years earlier to move to the desert in search of what sanity remained in the world, took our battery home and charged it overnight.

The next morning the battery was back in the car and the motel owner charged us $25 for the room. We drove off toward Winnemucca in search of a mechanic, our desert-solitude plans radically altered.

***

Somewhere around the junction of route 140 and Interstate 95 the desert began relinquishing its hold, and Reno began reshaping our reality.

There are two billboards at that junction in the middle of the desert. One touts Winnemucca as the City of Paved Streets, and the other offers a large, well-rendered painting of Frankenstein over the assertion that Winnemucca is the city where “life begins.”

We stopped in Winnemucca long enough to feed a few dollars into the slots, and then, having convinced ourselves that the Toyota had fixed itself, we drove on to Pyramid Lake, hoping to recapture a little of the magic of that first twilight in the desert. We never quite managed it.

Pyramid Lake has the distinction of being one of the largest white pelican nesting grounds in North America, and it’s also the site of an 1860 battle where the Paiute – miffed over the shenanigans that had been going on since John Fremont came to town back in 1884 – snuffed more white men in a single battle than any tribe before them. Now Pyramid Lake is at the heart of an Indian Reservation, a stone’s throw from Reno.

We spent the night in the only motel the lake had to offer, and the next day we tumbled down into Pipe Dream City, Haven of Desperate Hope, that razzle-dazzle den of Iniquity, Reno. The Toyota died dead as a doornail.

We let Reno have its way with us while a shifty-looking mechanic with a pit bull went on a search-and-destroy mission under the hood of the Toyota. We checked in at Harrah’s and found ourselves looking out a twelfth-story window over a bright splash of city bobbing in a dark sea of desert. For the next 24 hours we were where we were at, a clock-less around-the-clock fantasy world of gambling fools speckled with restaurants, spas, and second-rate performing acts. We showered, ate, and gambled.

I won $130 at the blackjack table while Jasmine played the slots, and the next day we were driving north again.

***

“You are where you’re at,” Jasmine reminded me as we crossed the Columbia at Biggs Junction. “You are where you’re at, but go where you please.”

“Follow your bliss,” I said, bringing Joseph Campbell back into the mix.

“Right,” said Jasmine, and slipped a little Credence into the tape deck.

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