There is this world, the modern world of the early 21st century, the world of celebrities and television, of Walmart and suburbs, of SUVs and school days, of schedules and debts, of the irritating mythology of America and that old, dusty dream we keep reliving.
And then there is the other world, the world of the nomad and the traveler, the world of the road and the endless path, the crazy monk and the desert rat, the the temporary autonomous zones of the circus, the fair, the festival.
From one world I can sometimes see the other, peeking through the mist that often obscures our view. The view is always unexpected and yet familiar, like opening the blinds to see the view we forget is just outside our window.
I’m in a sad, foggy beach town on the Oregon coast, streets filled with late-summer gawkers excited about taffy and bad murals. The bar where I sit is the diviest in town (yet there’s still a Guinness in front of me). And yet bellowing from the loudspeakers is the Grateful Dead. The mist between the worlds clears, and there are the Deadheads: suddenly we are on the road, trundling along in Ken Kesey’s ‘Furthur’ bus, heading off to Tennessee to start a farm.
A woman I meet in Olympia, Washington, shows me her Hawaii drivers license, but says she only keeps that as a mailing address: most of the time she’s on the road; she lives everywhere. This is the same trip where my plans for camping out fail for the rough weather, and for a week I spend nights in a church shelter, days out on my bicycle, learning from the kind folks on the street how to find a shower, where to get a decent, cheap meal, and why one man’s key to safety is carrying a small steel hammer.
My grandparents — my mother’s parents — are taking us around the west in their RV. Exploring around Mt. Shasta, we camp next to a old delivery van that’s been converted to a camper. The van’s owners calls it The Turtle: apropos, since our Winnebago has been nicknamed The Snail. Once upon a time, a snail met a turtle. And they lived happily every after, very slowly rambling into the dimming sunset.
I see the echoes, the shadows, the abandoned detritus: the mossy house-bus that lies in the Oregon forest, the grimy hitchhikers outside Eureka, the dead rockstars, the decaying psychotropic junkyards.
It is the farther future, allayed against fear and failure.
Yesterday I found myself out around town, eating a sandwich at the bakery, chatting with a friend on her front porch, biking up to Safeway to buy beer, having a long chat with my nomad friend who called me just before I called her. The moments blended together, and I could suddenly not remember when I’d left home. Was I even there at all? I couldn’t remember. All that seemed clear was that I was in the middle, on the way, on the road. So I looked ahead, and found myself racing the sunset in Judy’s car on the way to a free concert in an old barn of Irish music and primitive blues. After a while, when the claustrophobia hit, I escaped to wander in the moonlit fields. On a swing under a tree next to the insomniac goats, I wished I had a pipe to smoke.