An original travel essay written in CW 352: Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010
“Regarding the Sanctuary”
I wake up crumpled against the door, in the middle of a sod field, and Roland is gone. It is nearly dawn. The sky and the sod are the same color—somewhere between sea foam and first frost—and the air is still. A few hundred meters behind us is the highway, unnoticed, unnoticing. We motored all through the night hoping to reach Boulder, Colorado by morning, taking turns between driving and sleeping or pretending to sleep. Still beneath the rank sleeping bag that’s been stored in the back of the truck for years, I have that sensation of having eaten marmalade. The sticky feeling on the hands and mouth, and under the legs. Even my thoughts are sticking together. I contemplate rolling up the sod for miles and miles, and the uniform tedium of the approaching West.
Yesterday, on a brief sojourn at the banks of the Missouri, a brazed rambler named Roger tells us Good-day while we dip our feet. He spent his life on a farm, serving an old farmer man, who, we gather through the spit and sludge, adopted him after some misgiving with his blood family. The old man turned the land and served the Lord. “But then the old man died, and his kids got evil, and the farm disappeared.” Roland gives him a handful of loose change even though he isn’t that kind of rambler, the kind that expects it. Other than that, Roland and I have been in the car for two days straight, moving. And now, the sod field. These Great Plains must run up against Roger’s god-fearing farm. The heat of the morning is already on me. There is almost a breeze to ease the silence. I give Red Cloud a pat. “Good old boy,” I tell it. Red Cloud is Roland’s old pickup. All of his possessions all have names; the canoe he rowed down the Mississippi is Jim, the oar is Tom, the carjack is Eileen, the wheelbarrow is Sarah. A clatter comes from behind, and Roland’s intent, bearded face pokes curiously up from the bed of the truck.
“A much needed rest!” he shouts through the window, as if shouting the key to an equation. “How are you doing?”
I dip my head in a “how-do” gesture, to welcome him back to the trip placidly.
“Good!” He shouts, slipping back into the car and clumsily jolting us onto the highway.
Roland and I have been flatmates for six months in Brooklyn. We’re about as interested in each other as fruit flies are interested in John Updike, honest to God, but he’s good company. He works on films now in the locations department (this means carting around ungrateful extras and picking up trash, and he routinely befriends the least noticeable hired hands). He wishes that he had more time to work on a number of writing projects that he is wary to divulge to anyone but his word processor. One day I suppose he will find a benefactor in order to do this full-time. I was hoping, on our trip, to distill a clear outline of these projects, because, though he puts himself out there in the most comprehensive way he knows how, I think that knowing what someone is writing tells us more than any number of their misadventures. But it hasn’t happened. I think the project has burrowed too deeply and sprouted roots places for which even he doesn’t know a means to cultivate.
He’s on this cross-country trip to follow Phish as they tour nationwide, and agreed to take me along for the voyage and didn’t ask for a penny in return (“we’ll just have to teach you to drive stick so that you can get us through the Rockies after the last show at Red Rocks”). So I hastily gave my two weeks notice at the dress shop on North 6th Street, kissed Brooklyn goodbye, and embarked, not really convinced that I even wanted to go at all. I made arrangements to meet my father and step-mother at their Army base home in the Mojave Desert, where Roland will drop me before continuing onto Phish shows in San Francisco, Oregon, and Chicago. Visiting Dad was not motivation for the voyage, but it is convenient that he lives at the other end of the line. He was pleased and told me heartily, “Come on down, babe! This is your sanctuary.” The word makes my throat closes a little. It is what he always tells me when I make a visit, and his home is always riddled with discomfort. His wife thinks I am over-privileged because I live (and work to pay the rent) in New York City, and I think she’s something of a child, but we always breadcrumb our conversations with grins, and bear it.
The sod field is located in Kansas, just an hour beyond Boulder, and we make fast time. It is too early to do anything else once we arrive, so we climb to the top of a bluff to view, from great heights, the sprawl among the verdant swells. The plain bumping up to the Rockies’ eastern front is the most rapidly growing urban area in the country, and the highways look like scar tissue tightly spread over years between mountains. A hawk clears a starling from its throat from up above. The roads in Colorado are steep, and the climbers moan when they walk. Back in the East, people moan when they talk. Roland distributes bananas and water, and hikes down into the quarry below us while I blind sketch the land.
We spend a week here. The first few days are in a hostel, and then Roland goes off to four consecutive days of Phish with friends— this is the highlight of his trip. I stay with a girl who I hastily find on the Web. Her name is Molly and she offers me stay on her white, velveteen couch. In her flat are posed half-naked mannequins reading Dische novels. She works as a barista at one of those gone-corporate coffee shops, collects childhood photos of people she has never met, and for about one sentence in three, employs a mildly fake British accent. She tells me about her desire to go to art school. For what? She can’t decide. She asks why I’m in Boulder and I tell her that the opportunity cropped up for adventure, but that I also was feeling trapped in my Brooklyn home. The New-Yorker I’d been seeing loosely (and was crazy about) for two years had moved into my house at the start of July, and a week later told me that I had the wrong idea about our relationship, that it was a part-time gig for him. I broke it off after that conversation, and he headed out for a month-long job in Massachusetts, not bothering to move out of the house. Being there was getting to be too much. Molly is appalled, but not surprised. “A good man is hard to find,” we mutter, almost simultaneously. In four months she will move to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, but our friendship will not move past Boulder.
While Molly is at work, I romp around the little city. There is no shortage of innovation in the rising panhandler demographic. A number of them, sweltering, wear elaborate costumes and perform unrehearsed acrobatics. One eight-year-old, with no supervisor in sight, plays the same riff over and over on a hefty glockenspiel and is making a profit. Many are transient and filthy, but have the softened eyes and angles of their middle-class adolescence, holding signs advertising their dream to make it to Eugene, for want of a dime. To them, Oregon is the promised land. It is far from home and obligation and out of sight of discarded, self-conscious ideals. They put me at odds. My situation is desirable: I have a surefire free ride to the west coast. But while these vagrants are turning colorful circles in the concrete square, I all I can imagine is a prolonged silence between me and the road, me and my family, me and the dusty weeks ahead. The world has become very beautiful, and very lonesome. The landscape is transcribed into tangled sentences, downgraded into trochees paying tribute to small rains, to milkweed, to flocks and mountains and moors. I bury myself somewhere between where my imaginary terrarium stops and where the earth begins.
Molly is a fine companion during all this. At the end, I buy her a copy of The Songs of Innocence and head over to Red Rocks for the last show so that Roland and I can skip town directly. I must be the only person in the swarm of several thousand stuck outside of Red Rocks who isn’t trying to wiggle into Phish. Everyone else came equipped with hand drums, muumuus, muddy-faced children, mutts, booze, and a whole laundry list of hallucinogens. I try to fit into the grooves, but I don’t move naturally among them. There’s a certain ecstatic squalor to the crowd that I am unable to embrace. No one wants to have a conversation, so after dark I set up the sleeping bag and some peanut butter sandwiches in Red Cloud and phone an old lover from Detroit that I’ll probably never see again.
“Good news. I am ill,” he greets me in his cattail hush. “Where are you, Blushing Blue?”
“Colorado,” I say. “There are more people than pines and I’m alone with no one to talk to. What’s your temperature?”
“Unmentionably high. And I’m too old to ask anyone to take care of me.”
He tells me he feels rotten as a fishtail, and I tell him about going West, inevitably towards Dad. “The one and only time my father visited me in Brooklyn, he noticed all the funeral homes and wanted to know where they planted the bodies. I hope you recover soon. Gargle salt water, you seaworthy terror.”
He coughs a pleased good-bye just as everyone careens out of the amphitheater.
The drive across the Rockies is terrifying. Earlier I watched Roland down more drugs than I can count on one hand, but I can’t tell the difference, except that he, if possible, is more efficient (and enigmatic) than usual. I expect there to be swerves in the road where there aren’t, anticipate falling rocks that never come. It’s freezing, but I leave the window open to keep awake. Again, just before dawn, we pull over and sleep in a field, not of sod this time, but of red, red dust, pimpled with Joshua trees, reaching like so many hands in the strange Utah light.
Utah is everything you want, and refractive. The desert gives rise to smooth sandstone mountains, marbled rust and cyan, and devolves back again to yucca groves. I begin for the first time to anticipate nothing but the curves and creases that surround us. Being so far from billowing water banishes the mind in grottos as unexplored as the terrain. To ground myself, I study the road signs, and think only of adjusting my speed accordingly as the road shifts beneath us.
“This desert is an exercise in futility, Roland.”
Roland flicks a June bug off the steering wheel. He tells me that this desert was once the floor of an ocean whose waters were responsible for that peculiar cherubim softness which its mountains suggest. He tells me that when the pioneers were making their crossing, they would have to lower down their horses and cattle and wagons with pulleys whenever they came upon a cliff, lest they be unable to return to the top.
We make camp just east of Zion National Park. Camp is a spot Roland has used once before, pointed to him years ago by a group of Zion-bound Spaniards, and he recognizes it by a white derby flag buried amongst the copse. The grounds run up against the Virgin River, a shallow and narrow, fast-moving tributary that is as pretty as its namesake. Within five minutes of unloading, we meet a disciple of Saint Germain of the Violet Flame. He is a man whom my father would doubtlessly dub “a fruitcake.” He’s a rambler, but not like Roger on the Missouri; the Disciple has money somewhere, probably a credit card, and all of his milky teeth. He doesn’t look me in the eye when we shake, and directs neither his salutations nor his spiel towards me — it’s not a matter of piety either, but that I look like a child in my checkered bathing suit, next to the capable, broad-faced Roland, and a woman child at that. He lets neither of us finish a sentence, but preaches Germain’s good name for a good while, ending with an incantation longer than my transcription.
..I am the violet transmuting flame, the cosmic law of forgiveness. Blaze through me now, transmuting all my miscreation, all my mistakes, and the mistakes of mankind, transmuting all cause, effect, record and memory forever…
I am glad when he finally goes, and insist that Roland lock the car before we spend the evening clumsily carrying kindling from across the river. When we arrive back at camp, the Disciple has left us a long, heavy branch, and with the dinner I cook over it for us, I swallow my miscreations.
In the morning, we go on to Zion and spelunk into a little-known slot canyon called the Keyhole. Despite my normal intuitions, I have without thinking entrusted my general wellbeing to Roland on this trip, this most of all in the Keyhole. We enter with nothing but swimsuits and one long water-safe line, and I feel at ease. In the rainy season there occasionally will be waves like huge troughs that flood canyons like this, and they are perilous to the warm-blooded. Mosquitoes will swarm in their midst. Rule of thumb: if you hear a buzz and smell mud, get out or be drowned. Now in the narrow passages, which the diver repels down into before landing in millennia-old stagnant water, we meet a group of eight reform school boys and their keeper. I expected to be soulfully alone down in the canyon, to give up the notion of the swarms above for a hour. But the boys are geared up and suited for subterranean combat. After a few words, Roland informs us that he worked at the same reform school for a year (I can’t piece his timeline together anymore). The boys don’t know whether to leer or embrace, so they ignore us. We make it out and dry ourselves on the sandstone, where there once was only ocean.
By sunset we come upon the Mojave, which famously surrounds the hottest tract in America. Off of Interstate 15, on a road that leads to nowhere, thirty long miles later leads to Fort Irwin, California. The only inhabitants between the fort and the highway are an occasional terrapin and half-a-dozen glinting doublewides, squatting in the dust. We arrive at the gate, all cinderblocks and machine guns and heat-weary soldiers. Roland and I say so-long meters from my destination. Our parting is not poignant, but unsettling— I hadn’t thought through this far ahead. My father meets me in his fatigues, and the simple culture clash reminds me that it’s not just aesthetic differences that I’m stepping into, but over a decade of subverted communications.
It turns out that we don’t have much to say to each other, and that we don’t see each other for more than a moment here and there. Dad has just transferred here to the middle of nowhere, from Texas (another version of the same sentiment, in its own rite), and is flogged with the work of warring nations. I spend two days making idle talk with my stepmother and helping them organize the moving men and kitchenware, trying to escape the heat of the desert. Outdoors is beautiful in a way. There are burnt sienna mountains and bluebell blue skyscapes. Everyone I come into contact with tells me about the weather, and preaches, “if you sit in the shade, it’s not hot at all.” During a brief conversation with my father, he asks me to outline my five year plan while the cat looks on lazily. When I don’t have an adequate answer he chuckles and spouts his stock, “There’s always the Army,” shtick.
On the third day, I’m gone. I console myself with the thought that they compliantly recognize that now is not the moment to develop our relationship, or that the timing is wrong, or that the desert serves as a mediocre backdrop. Perhaps it becomes clear again that our lifestyles cleave almost violently, but that doesn’t seem right either. We are not available to each other yet, and the place in all of its seclusion, gives no comfort. It seems to me that the anxiety of family comes to light only when the promise of a sanctuary dissolves.
—written by Ashley Martin