When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. My father had warned me about Greaser and Wetback. But these new words were spectacular and vivid.
I pull into Johnson’s Corner Truck Stop, off I-25, heading north on the high plains of Colorado. To my left, the cracked spine of the Rockies is massively visible, pale violet between me and my past. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Logan Heights — what the pachucos used to call “Shelltown” — National Avenue, and the knives and the shotguns and the glass. I have driven over the Continental Divide, I have driven up and down the Front Range, climbed in the Flatirons, climbed out of the Grand Canyon, swum in Emerald Poll high up in Zion. But Shelltown doesn’t go away. Thomas Wolfe said: You Can’t Go Home Again. I’d like to add: sometimes you can’t escape from home, no matter how far you go.
Inside Johnson’s, all the booths have phones; truckers sit around me in their gimme caps. Graffiti in the toilet: CRAZY COYOTES/TEXAS. The rubber machines offer “Love Paks” for 75 cents. Having a prime rib sandwich special. Destination: Laramie, Wyoming. Songs on the jukebox include:
“Ace in the Hole,” by George Strait
“Timber I’m Falling in Love,” by Patty Loveless and
‘There’s a Tear in My Beer,” by Hank Jr.
All heads turn when a baby-blue ’50 Chevy lowrider pulls through the lot: the cowboys and me, suddenly transformed into homeboys. I wonder what these red-faced strawhats would do if a vato walked in right now, khakis pulled up high, Pendleton buttoned only at the throat, maybe a red bandanna flat on his forehead, surgically slicing off the top curve of his eyebrows. I can hear them now, muttering Gaw-Damn Sioux!
Mexicans out here lie low. I know a Chicana poet who teaches at the University of Colorado, and every semester or so, some genius in a truck calls her a “greaser” or an “Injun.” A verbal drive-by shooting. It’s funny: I never heard an anti-Mexican comment in Shelltown. For whatever bad things I could say about Logan, that is the best. When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. My father had warned me about Greaser and Wetback. But these new words were spectacular and vivid. I couldn’t figure out what we had done to make them so mad at us.
The meat in my sandwich is a huge gray slab, easy as the crust of an old pudding. I’m wearing black jeans & cowboy boots. Got $200...well, $180. Got a full tank of gas...well, half a tank. Bought a Johnson’s Corner postcard for religious vision & inspiration:
Let me live my life
with fast trucks and beautiful women
and when I die, I want them to tan
this old hide of mine,
and make it into a ladies driving seat,
so that I’ll be between the two things I like best.
Fast trucks and beautiful women.
I drive north.
Cache La Poudre River.
I cross into Wyoming the back way, up 287, the former stagecoach route. Ruined stage stations lurk in the hollows, suspicious ghosts at the busted windows, fingering their six-guns. A lone buffalo stands broadside to the road. His chin beard makes him look like a veterano. He watches me go by. I hear him say, ¿Que onda, Homes?”
Laramie, Wyo. State bird: Meadowlark.
My tent takes only about five and a half minutes to put up. I pitch it in the middle of a wide grass field. My little house on the micro-prairie. Distant mountains; clouds come up from the plains. Quiet blackbirds patrol the grass. Big trucks on I-80 rumble vaguely behind. My Jeep looks noble & jaunty against a fractured sky.
Found: 1 stainless steel fork lying in the grass. Says “New York State” on the handle, some jailbird fresh-sprung stealing his chili-spoon from the mess line. I police the area like the blackbirds, solemnly looking for bugs.
Unbelievable light. The sun slants close to the ground & pure heartbreak light floods all across the landscape, pushing my shadow like a log on a wave. Storm clouds in the distance start as a blue-gray smear near the earth & knot & tumble & rise & grow to massive bright-white fists 12 miles high....
I’m hunched in my tent like a woodchuck.
Lone supper: really gnarly hash on French roll, some cheese. Triscuits. Dates, bananas, milk.
Kind of like eating an Alpo sandwich.
Other lonely guys scattered around the field eat their suppers too, look up at the clouds, the far peaks, the high plains. Rain on the horizon as vague between the clouds and land as smoke. The sun is so low behind me now that the hurrying shadows of the semis stretch across a mile or so and hit the tent wall. Gray flashes. The white face of the tent has developed an eyelid, and it is blinking. Squads of stealthy bears leap out of the grass.
One Logan Heights event always comes back to me. I often see it in my mind at quiet moments. It’s funny, I think.
3935 National Avenue, maybe 1963 or ’64. My father was no doubt bowling. (He worked at the Hillcrest Bowl, gone now, I’ve noticed. Its murals of Rip Van Winkle and bowling trolls lost forever to yet another San Diego mini mall, not far from where our town fathers bulldozed the graveyard to make a devil’s park.) My mom and I were in the apartment, barricaded by her insane fear of black people.
It was obvious to me, even at a young age, that she caused the problems in the first place. Just like the knuckleheads in Clairemont who would later call my people “greasers,” my mother thought nothing of using the “N” word, a word I dread to this day. She was white. She explained that “we don’t mean anything when we call them that, honey — it’s just their name.” So our nights were spent in a darkened apartment, all doors and windows locked, my mother no doubt imagining waves of invaders desperate to get in at us and our turtle and our shitty tin TV trays.
That night, I was awakened by a ruckus across the lawn. The next building down was having a house party — black voices laughing to the terrifying funque of James Brown: Please, Please. Please! The last thing I remember hearing before I fell asleep was the melodic voice of the large woman I had never been allowed to meet. I thought it was her yelling when I awoke.
It was not. It was a man screaming in perfect falsetto. He was wailing like the Four Tops. Mother was at the window. “Don’t look,” she said. I looked. Yow!
He was running around naked. Buck — or “butt,” as the homeys used to say — naked. I think he was the first man I had ever seen naked, except for my father. He was certainly the first black man I had seen naked. He was skinny and periodically appeared in washes of light as he paraded around the lawn, declaiming. Oh, and he was waving a long 12-gauge shotgun right at the pleasant large woman who stood on the porch saying “baby” and “fool.” The partygoers were ducking to the floor as he aimed at the house.
Police cars flashed hysterically on National Avenue. Cops crept up all around him, speaking sweetly. He yelled at them too. I remember this so vividly because it could never happen today. The cops moved in on him, stood with him, reasoned with him, took the gun from him, then everyone laughed.
This pissed off the large woman on the porch, who lit into the cops and him. In the following excitement, as they tried to keep the shotgun from her, tried to keep her from him, he slipped away. The next thing any of us knew, one of the cop cars took off — our hero at the wheel. He’d done a quick bit of nude sidewalk auto shopping. All the other cops lit out after him.
The partygoers laughed for about an hour.
I went back to bed.
The thinnest nail-clipping of a moon is up. Electric lights look cold & alien in the near distance. Local kids actually ride bikes on the dirt country road while I’m thinking it’s the end of the world.
Tents have sprung up around me. Bikers build a small compound of four tents, massive Harleys circled against the Pawnee — or the cavalry. A guy with a swollen lens before his face stands and films the weird Western horizon.
And now, on Interstate 80, the big rigs fly through the amber washes of electric lightning. It looks like their plastic toys. Like there’s a bulb inside each truck, making it glow. Then they’re past the lights, and they blink out. Turn black against the glow. Phantom boxes, damned to an eternal rush everywhere in this huge America.
There goes one now.
Really cold now. No doubt the Big Alone drops the temp another five degrees. I get in, zip shut the tent, pull on a long-sleeve T-shirt. Put on my wife’s socks for comfort. Into the bag. Miss her.
It’s only after a little while that I start crying.
Late enough for pitch-blackness. I unzip my tent flap & cautiously peek out. The moon is so low, so lurid in its color & so distorted by the atmosphere, that I mistake it for a neon sign.
The inside of the tent is completely coated with condensation. I have breathed a small rainstorm.
Radio suddenly delivers horrible news: it’s 6:51 a.m.
Driving through the rolling grasslands. Groups of cows & horses bunch together and stare out upon the morning. Also a little flock of rust-red tractors. Look like they’re grazing.
I’ve been listening to an AM station. They have a show called “The Trading Post,” where various Wyomingans call in to sell stuff. I find their pithy cowboy accents oddly comforting in the middle of the big empty range. Due to the relentless road racket of the Jeep, however, their words can barely be understood. Strange new phrases and surreal sentences pop out of my radio: “A zubukon mastiff — heh-hee-haw! — fifteen fifty-six.”
Now, the Jeep hisses and spits its entire radiator-load all over the blacktop. I pour in fresh water and head out — six miles to the next gas station. Steaming like a zubukon mastiff.
I always loved gas stations. Machines roar all through my San Diego memories. My old man, working in the back end of the Hillcrest Bowl among those amazing Brunswick pin tenders, reading moldie nudie mags like Nugget and Pix and Knight. And there I was, scampering over the open guts of the machines on catwalks, shooting SMERSH and KAOS agents off the rafters to screaming bone-shearing deaths inside the gears: their heads would routinely be delivered back to the stunned bowlers in place of bowling balls. And we hung out at Sherbet’s Shell (a fake name, and anyway, it’s gone now too). Sherbet was a cowpoke-looking dude who belonged eternally at Johnson’s Corner. He’d cheerfully repair the damage the old man did to our Comet on our jaunts into Tijuana.
I didn’t notice that we hung out at Sherbet’s because my dad and Mrs. Sherbet were in love. She was a cotton-eyed-joe cowgirl who seemed to think an organ-playing bowling shoe attendant was just the neatest thing. She showed up at my house one morning when my mom was at work. “What are you doing here?” she said. “I live here,” I said and shut the door.
Sherbet died of cancer, whittled down to about 70 innocent pounds. He never knew, but she could not forget. I never saw her again.
I clang and belch into the dirt back-lot of Elk Mountain Texaco station. It’s like Jim Bridger’s wilderness outpost, smack in the middle of nothing much. A fellow in an orange jumpsuit comes out and looks at it. Steam rising. “It’s a warm one,” he says.
“Sure is,” I drawl. Real he-man stuff happening.
“Could be the thermostat.”
“Gauge says normal. Stays right in the middle.”
“Gauge says normal, huh.”
“Middle. Little less than middle.”
“Could be the pump. Could be the cap. Could be the thermostat’s stuck.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. “Hunh,” I say in manly appreciation.
“Let’s let her cool down.”
He goes back inside.
A second car-guru in an orange jumpsuit comes out for a look. We bend into the open mouth of the Jeep, and he asks pertinent questions.
“It’s gonna have to cool down a little bit,” he says. “But I guess he already told you that.” He goes back inside.
Guy comes back out. Says, “This might still be pretty God damned close to hot!”
Then he goes back inside.
His jumpsuit, in white thread, says: JIM.
Several dead cars crouch in the grass. A giant tow-truck beside me mutters to itself: “Ten-four... Edwards. First name, Ralph W.” The back of the tow-truck has a plaque that says HOLMES750, whatever that means. Jim returneth.
“It’s the thermostat,” he says.
It has malfunctioned, causing the water to fail to circulate.
“Got to see if I got a new one,” he says. “This God damned thing’s shot!
If I don’t, you got to go down the road without one and see if you can find you one.”
He goes back inside.
He comes back out.
“Got one,” he says.
Then we go into a head-gasket panic. The radiator keeps boiling over.
“If it’s the gasket,” Orange Jim tells me, “then you’re up the crick.”
I engage in brisk dialogue with God.
“God damned head gasket, you could have cooked the God damned thing,” Jim notes.
He goes back inside.
He comes back out.
“Done,” he says.
I get ready to leave. One of the mechanics comes out and proclaims: “Aw, motherfutch!” Which is exactly how I feel.
Driving out among the rolling prairies, I think: This ain’t Clairemont Drive!
At Strange, Abandoned, Fort Fred Steele. In a word, desolate. The “Interpretive center” is abandoned. Wind whistles. Nobody home.
Ruins. Chimneys, stark and tall, like photographs of abandoned concentration camps. I think of my mother in the Red Cross, tagging after Patton as he busted open the doors of Buchenwald. Everybody dead and gone: Patton, the victims, the good soldiers of Fort Steele, my mother. Dust under the sun. It looks exactly like my memories.
These boys at Fred Steele were truly at the end of the line.
Now, the entire fort belongs to eerie birds, crickets, and me. The only sound is the wind, the animals, and the furious-sounding freight trains going by.
Collapsing cabins and stables, vast rubble-pebbled grass and empty foundations. I climb down into an underground storeroom. Dirt steps uncertain, old door warped and angled into the dirt. Splintery shelves set into the dirt walls. Pack rat droppings like scattered punctuation in the corners.
On the ground: triangles of busted porcelain, old bottles, nails, ancient flattened food tins, bits of windows. A dead falcon lies in the foundation of the enlisted men’s barracks. Headless. A safe lies tipped on its back, door ripped off. Thin scum of rusty rainwater inside and a chemical-looking Polaroid half-developed: a demon’ s-eye view of the smokestacks, colors sunburned and melted. Ghosts! I keep expecting to hear boot-heels or a horse.
Across the prairie-grass parade ground, an old white schoolhouse still stands.
It is near the edge of a small bluff, and I can imagine the children of a hundred years sitting inside, gazing out the windows, dreaming of buffalo and Cheyenne warriors.
Inside the old schoolhouse, graffiti:
Went to school here in 1912 was here in 1975 James Spyer
went to school here to 1924
Devil Place Call 1-800-666-EVIL
started kinter garden Here
Best days of my life
Lived across the tracks in 1959 was here 6-9-81 James Sanchez
I was here come and find me bitch!
This place is not for you so get the fuck out. I was here first so this is my fucken place— stay away MP
“This is my fuckin’ neighborhood,” Jerome used to say. “I’ll fuckin’ run you out, white child.”
We were all terrified of Jerome, the black kids and me both. But in his way, he loved his own. Certainly Jerome’s wrath was directed mostly at us — the Mexicans and whites and Pinays (Filipinos).
He has a short leg. He wore a thick-soled shoe. He thumped and strained around the ’hood, swinging his legs wide. Sometimes he’d take a swipe at me as he went by. Once, a gaggle of his homeboys brass-knuckled me in the kidneys as I walked by them. I was with my mother, and I walked on tiptoes, biting back the pain until they were well past. I’d show them I could take it. But I also knew that if my mother noticed, she’d start trouble, and I was more afraid of that than of the pain.
One day, coming home from school, I saw a small black kitten caught in the middle of National Avenue. It had a ribbon around its neck with a small bell that tinkled as it flinched away from the cars and meowed.
I rescued it.
My mother let it sleep with me that night. The next morning, we put it out. She said, “If it still comes back after school, you can keep it.”
But after school, it was gone.
I waited and waited. Finally, I asked some big kids going by, “Have you seen a kitten?”
One of the girls said, “You mean a little black one? Got a bell?”
“Jerome killt it. Smashed its head with his shoe. He left it stickin’ to the wall of the laundry room.”
Later, the homeys would bury another cat in wet cement.
One swing through the cemetery before I go. It’s an abandoned, worn-down, wild-west bone-yard on a bluff above the river. Windswept. I want to pay my respects. There’s a placard with names and dates of death of each person in each numbered grave. (Headstones long gone now.) I decide to find someone who died near this date, figuring no one had been along to mourn the anniversary of their passing for more than a hundred years.
Clara Kesner died August 3, 1871. She was buried at position 21. She was the daughter of Sgt. Kesner, 2nd U.S. Cavalry. When the troops pulled out, they dug young Clara up and mounted her on a train. Her casket was borne away to a National Cemetery far away, there, I hope, to lie eventually beside her father. I count off the sinking plots and find 21.1 kneel for a minute and wish her well. I am startled at the strength of my feelings.
I leave her the blossom of weeds, tucked onto the spot by rocks.
Crossed the Continental Divide — twice. I don’t know how I managed that. TIRED. Many gas and rest stops. Everybody gets out of cars and walks the same way, like we’ve got an emery board tucked between our butt-cheeks. I reward Wyoming with a little more of my urine.
I keep scanning for flying saucers. So far I’ve only sighted old fat guys in overalls.
Pulled into an “Eighteen Wheeler Restaurant.” About to eat a happy chefs salad, happy cornbread, and a happy cup of coffee. Truckers again. Phones at all the tables. Quoth The Noble Knights of the Road:
“When the hell is the God damned dog going in!”
“I bet Terry’s been beatin’ her gums.”
One guy enthuses:
“All I need’s a coffee cup and an ashtray and I’m all set!”
Clouds put down spider-legs of lightning and mince along the peaks.
Blacks Fork River.
We’re all restless out here. Americans hurrying away. That seems the quintessential American direction: away. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stay in San Diego anymore. There was no place left to run.
Here’s how I got out of Shelltown. Physically, at least.
After school, 1965: Spring. Wearing my idiotic St. Jude’s Academy uniform. My bright red sweater calling vatos and homeboys from miles around to come kick my ass. I had a crew cut because I thought it made me sound like James Bond in the barber shop. “What’ll it be, kid,” the old fart would say. “Crew cut,” I’d say, imagining I was puffing on a cigarette. All the stinky men in there would laugh, and the barber would turn to my old man and say, “Get a load of this kid.” And, along with my uniform, I had my brown satchel full of books and pencils. You could hear the ’hood telegraph calling: Here comes a geek!
The cat was old — 18 maybe, even 20. He was light-brown, had a close-cropped ’do, and stank of burned hemp, though I was too little to really know what weed smelled like. And I was thrilled. We walked down the street chatting away like friends.
Up ahead, two good St. Jude’s girls in their uniforms.
“Look at that,” he said.
“You like girls?”
“You really like girls?”
He yelled: “Hey, girls! This boy say he want to get into your pussies!”
“I didn’t say that!” I said.
“You say I’m lying?” he said, then he punched me in the mouth. I covered up. He landed a couple to my forearm, then started in on my ears and the back of my head. I panicked and swung my satchel into his face. The whole world stopped. Freeze-frame. Then the satchel slowly came off his lips in rebound, and his eyes locked on mine. No sound as the lips work, spitting words I can no longer hear. And he reaches now into his back pocket, things speeding back up to normal, and he yanks a switchblade out and he hits the button and the blade flies up, out, bright, sharp. And he swings.
I wasted no time. I was gone. I imagined a cloud of cartoon dust in my wake, as if I were the Roadrunner and this maniac were Wile E. Coyote.
I was running hard, and he was gaining, and I swear I heard the blade fly past my ear as he swung it, yelling, “I’mo kill you!” over and over. I have dreaded running and jogging since then. But I won that race, beating it into Mr. Everrett’s Antiques: gone, now, too, like all the rest. And I was screaming, “He’s killing me!” Mr. Everrett, a gruff old sport who raised pug-dogs, lived in a house in back. He came out of the back room and said, “Who’s killing you?” That was when Wile E. Coyote burst in, waving his knife. Mr. Everrett magically reversed his age about 35 years and jumped to a counter and grabbed an antique butcher knife. I was between the two blade-points, gawking up at their twisted faces.
“Boy hit me, I’mo kill him.”
“You’re not killing anybody. Now get out of here.”
“I’mo cut him.”
“Big man,” Mr. Everrett taunted. “You’re such a big man to chase little boys!”
There was no phone — something pretty common on National Avenue in those days. Wile E. went outside but laid siege, hovering around the front door for a half-hour. Mr. Everrett finally ran out as a police car passed, and Wile E. vanished, never to be seen again. I was afraid every day for a while, certain he would grab me on my way to school.
But the story didn’t end just there. It should have, but it didn’t. What happened was that Wile E.’s siege had made me almost an hour late to my babysitter’s. She did not believe me when I told her what had happened. And there was no way to call Mr. Everrett.
She told my parents, who also thought I was lying. There was a good chance I had stayed after school in one of their houses. Soon, there would be children bearing the “N” word all over our house. And worse, I had lied.
So my father made me take off my pants, and he whipped me with his belt. He was sad about it, of course, but he was teaching me to tell the truth. Only, the next day, Mr. Everrett checked to see how I was, and they realized their mistake.
Apparently, the whipping finally made them leave Shelltown.
THE CROSS IS BARE
THE TOMB IS EMPTY JESUS LIVES!
Onto Uinta County 295. Dirt. To Hole in the Wall. I’m in Butch Cassidy country: Sundance, the Wild Bunch, Kid Curry, that outlaw with the rock ’n’ roll name, they all rode through here. I’ve got the joyous glow of gunfighter ghosts in the Jeep with me. Butch, looking a little bony today, wears his dopey Boston Bowler hat.
Two cows munch happily beside the track as I drive in and stop to watch. I get out and walk over near them and say, “Hi, cows.”
Hey! They’re bulls! Run away!
On up the track a ways, driving in 4WD through slick mud. I come upon two fellows standing in the mud. One with a cowboy hat. The other with long black hair, apparently an Indian. They’ve been pulling a trailer with a Blazer & they’ve got the trailer stuck. So they unhook it & immediately bury the Blazer up to its rocker panels. Thomas McGuane described this very scene in one of his novels: These men seemed to feel their pickup owed them an explanation.
I pull up behind the trailer. For some reason, I suddenly affect a Western twang. Utterly phony good-ol’-boy-speak. Maybe I’m channeling Kid Curry. “Yuh git stuck?” I bellow. “Yep! Never seen it this way!”
“You goin’ all the way up?”
“Not now I’m not!”
“Jes’ pokin’ around.”
“How ’bout that!”
“Guesst I’ll go poke somewhere else!” “Don’t get off that gravel!” he advises.
The Indian man flashes me a peace sign.
Welcome to Utah. Rocks of sheep file across the hills. I have been driving and driving and driving and driving. Driving, driving, driving, driving, and driving. In the far distance, lightning strikes set a tree afire. I watch it bum, an angry wavering amber-yellow-red point. Then it flickers out. Jimi Hendrix playing as I sink into psychedelic Flaming Gorge.
Sheep Canyon Creek. Not another humanoid in sight. Three overgrown graves in an overgrown corral up a rise to the right of the road. Cleophas J. Dowd, 1857-1897. Homesteaded here from 1885 till his death. He must have been feeling testy in ’97, because he was killed by his partner, Charles Reaser in “SELF DEFENSE.” Religious nut, visionary, gunman, crank, rancher, swindler — old Dowd’s buried in his beloved canyon with two of his kids. I don’t know if I’d have liked Cleophas in life, but I’m happy for him in death. Not a bad spot at all for your ghost to wander. You could say Cleophas J. Dowd homesteaded Sheep Creek Canyon for eternity.
A delightful and surreal little ridgeline trail meanders up from Mr. Dowd’s grave. I leave him and hike up a short way and dig the sounds of the animals, water, the coolness, the green, red soil. The walls have, in places, the same outré colors as Bryce. I’m so busy gawking at the cliffs I almost plow into an antelope.
I park at the mouth of the canyon, beside Navajo Cliffs, and think about it. I’m thinking of the basic worthiness of living, what Jonathan Edwards would have called “beauty” and “sweetness.” God in the details, like Jonathan saw the divine in a lightning storm or a spider. Out in the aloneness and the silvery collapsing homesteaders’ shacks visible in the near distance all along the highway, I think about Jerome, and Mr. Jones, the only man who could comfort me after Jerome had killed my kitten.
Mr. Jones was a minister who lived across the dirt alley. He had the purest black skin I ever saw — a beautiful shade of obsidian, with startlingly white hair. He always wore a suit. Once, when I had to go into his house because I had thrown a toy into his back yard, I was astonished to find him wearing a hairnet.
I was crying in the dirt. Mr. Jones came along the fence and peered in at me. He was carrying his Bible. “Boy,” he said. “What are you crying about?”
I was sure only Mr. Jones could understand what had happened, so I ran to him and grabbed him over the fence, and I wailed, “Jerome killed my little cat!”
Mr. Jones just stood there quietly and patted me until I stopped crying. Then he said, “Wait here for me.”
He came back from his house with a small silver box. It had “1898” etched on it. He handed it to me.
“It was my wife’s,” he said. She died before I was born. “Open it.”
Inside, an old rosary.
“They gave that to her when she was a little girl,” he said. “And she gave it to me when she died. Now you take it.”
I stood there with the box in my hands and stared up at him. I knew that something huge was happening, but I couldn’t know what. He said: “You remember Mr. Jones when you get sad. You keep this with you and remember this day. And I want you to remember that black men are men, not niggers.”
He put his hand on my head, and he went home.
Today, walking along beside Sheep Creek, I happened to come across a perfect foot-fall, a pale flat rock. On this rock, a fat black ant. It gave me pleasure to step beside her, my foot 1000 times her size, and be gone. The ant, pausing in her motions, thought — what was that! Then each of us went about our business, unharmed. (Though she might have had a religious conversion. She might have rushed back to the nest, squirting the chemical message to her mates: “I saw God! It sat beside me upon the rock, then flew into the sky!”)
Flaming Gorge Dam, Utah.
I follow a family with a grotesque miniature poodle onto the roadway atop the dam. A very pleasant rangerette in blue, with pleasant and profuse blond hair and a very pleasant voice appears. She points out various fascinating things to us and the poodle, including the cascades of water that seep around the edges of the dam wall and come tearing out through the mountainsides. I angle in for a look at her name tag. Our guide: Clare D. Clare has an especially pleasant rangerette form, and I follow it loyally all over the dam. And I love? Her voice? That ends each sentence? About the dam? In a question?
Also, Clare caught a 30-pound trout in the Gorge at 4:30 this very morning. I swoon. Love, blind love.
“Our record catch at Flaming Gorge,” Faire Clare croons, “was 51.8 pounds!”
Then Clare terrorizes me by leading us into the bowels of the dam in an elevator. I stand at the bottom, watching happy trout loaf around in the whirls of water from the overflow, dreadfully aware that the world’s tallest tidal wave rises right behind me, frozen by a thin membrane of cement.
I fall on the Highway 64 Motel.
Lula Long checks me in.
The motel office is set up behind a counter in her dining room. In the living room, out of sight around a partition, somebody watches Andy of Mayberry. Andy’s saying, “Well, he’s not a snoop or a foreign spy.” I'm not, I agree. The woman watching the TV laughs.
Lula looks at me and says, “God.”
She’s thin as a breeze, gray hair in a neat little ’do. She wears a flimsy blouse and a housecoat. Ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts can be seen on the counter and on the dining room table. A clear airhose runs to Lula’s nose. She drags a small air unit with her as she moves, carefully laying her hands on things, as if they were hot. She has a dark scar on her throat.
She takes a very long time filling out the forms.
“It takes me forever,” she says.
“Don’t worry about it.”
All my feelings go out and around Lula Long.
I cannot imagine her days.
Vegetating in my room. Happy to be on a bed. Dully staring at the various boyz of Young Guns running around going “Pow! Pow!” on the TV. My legs are knobby with bug bites. From ankles to kneecaps, I’m covered in red bumps. My legs are like the handles of some newfangled heavy-duty “shur-grip” screwdrivers.
On TV, Jon Bon Jovi sings, “I’m going out in a blaze of glory.” While I’m going out in a blaze of hemorrhoids.
If only we could rob a bank. If only we could wield a six-gun and make it all better. I would ride into my past and shoot the daylights out of everything, grab everybody, and gallop into the sunset. But Shelltown eats its young. It eats its old, too. Man, you can’t shoot a ghost.
I’d lay odds I’m the first National Avenue boy to hike Sheep Creek Canyon. Jerome’s dead as my cat; Wile E. Coyote is rubble lying at the base of the street. My dad’s dead. Mr. Everrett’s dead. My babysitter’s dead. San Diego’s dead: I go home and find hilltops scraped off by some idiot in a tractor and pushed into the canyons. Clairemont’s surrounded by a fungus of yuppie condos, clattering beehives just waiting for that big fire to smear them off the hillsides. Rattlesnakes, owls, foxes, coyotes, scorpions, alligator lizards, crammed into little ravines behind Clairemont High School. Building up to their revenge.
And my mother. She was so American, she fled: from New York to World War II; from Buchenwald to San Francisco; from Sausalito to Mexico and my father; from my father to loneliness; from Tijuana to Shelltown; from Shelltown to Clairemont. Where she couldn’t shake Shelltown out of herself. It ate her up from within. Poverty had grabbed all of us and housed itself in our hearts. Poverty was home. She stayed in her house alone, poor in spirit, and couldn’t get up the coins to pay for another escape. There is no way to pay for the things you have compromised.
In April of 1990, she went to bed and never woke up. She lay there almost a week. That sleep awoke my Western journey: I returned to the land of the dead to recover her body. After I fed her ashes to the Atlantic, I began my run.
Woke up at eight, after strange dreams. In one, a little girl was making camp with me, but I don’t know who she was. In another, a child kept hugging me and saying, “My best buddy.” In the last, I was watching a basketball game. My father turned to me and asked, “Is this a national sport?”
Lula Long says, “Come back and see me.”
She’s smoking a cigarette. Smoke curls out her nostrils and rolls over her airhose like a small wave. I don’t know how to tell her what I have to tell her.
The ghosts and I pile into the Jeep. The kitten’s on the dash. My father’s beside me, looking at the map. My mother sits uncomfortably beside Jerome. Cleophas J. Dowd is skinnier than all of them. I hope Mr. Jones is still alive somewhere, touching some little boy on top of his head.
I drive out of town and look down upon the White River, on one of the many spots where the Escalante Expedition crossed, on September 9, 1776. They called it the San Clemente. Father Escalante and his men wandered in these unforgiving hills and canyons trying to find a passage west from Santa Fe. Hoping somehow to find a highway to California. I sit here staring at their bewildering landscape, can feel them wondering what to do now — do they cross the San Clemente again? Do they turn back? Can they go home and forget their strange sojourn?
The engine rumbles eagerly.