1. When someone you’ve been dating off and on for a year calls you from the beer cooler of the liquor store where he works and says he has a gun to his head and is going to kill himself, really, because you don’t care enough, really, you never did, it’s probably best not to embark on a road trip with him the next day, after he’s slept it off and filled a trash bag with the Milwaukee’s Best empties from the back of his 80s Toyota truck, after he’s sold his Sega Genesis and all the games for gas money, and he has a tent from his brother, and anyway he took five hundred from the deposit envelope in the office of the liquor store, and it won’t matter because he’s never coming back, he’s making it to Vancouver where he’ll build a driftwood shack by the water, and he definitely he promises put the gun back in the gun safe under the counter just beneath the tiny bottles of cheap whiskey that homeless men buy when they’ve scraped together enough coins and they want to get drunk enough not to feel the Kansas weather.
2. But I go anyway. I put the vintage costume-wear that is my wardrobe and is inappropriate for camping into a backpack and decide to start smoking Lucky Strikes because why not? During my only two years of college, I stewed about climate change and the swamps of plastics joining forces and riding the surface of the Pacific, but now everything felt in decline. No amount of refraining and recycling was going to knit together the ozone or un-strangle the water fowl. But there had been some small peace in imagining that these efforts mattered, that each recycled newspaper was a direct trade for a patch of rain forest re-sprouting, tree branches reaching out to each other in some dance of commensalism to make us all forget the sky.
3. May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. At least that’s what Edward Abbey said. At least that’s what the small bearded Elizabethan-seeming man who ran the nature essay class I took in my sophomore year wrote on the board on the first day. As if no one in the room had to go work second shift at Kwik Shop later that day or make artful cappuccinos for the scooped-out mothers of toddlers.
But all of Western Kansas is simply hot with monstrous white sci-fi windmills poking up out of slight yellow-green hills. We listen to David Bowie’s “Starman” on cassette over and over (stop, rewind, play, “he’s told us not to blow it cause he knows it’s all worthwhile”) and then stop for food. We sit on picnic tables outside of a McDonalds and smoke and share a giant Dr Pepper. I imagine the massive plastic cup rigged with straw straps and made into an A-line dress for a large squirrel or other varmint tired of discarded French fries and desperate for distraction. Under the tables the grass is bristly and brown at the tips. There is a play structure signed over to rust that belongs to a previous generation. A child hangs from her knees on one of the metal bars, and her hair is so long it hits the grass, which is almost the same color. The girl closes her eyes and just hangs while two small dogs lick her face. Flies swarm our ankles as if the flesh is actually rotting. The boyfriend, Tim, drinks the last of the Dr Pepper and pulls his shirt up to scratch the heat rash that has formed at the waist line of his jeans and there of course is the gun.
4. For reference: my father owned a BB gun that was used only to shoot squirrels in the attic, and he typically missed. For reference, when I was 12, I drove with my mother across half the country to Central Park where among nearly a million strangers we begged in chants for nuclear disarmament. I started a pacifist club at my high school. I told the punks who were my friends to stop running hard into each other at music shows, knowing they would mock me for it, knowing they would presume I was missing the point. But I did still cut my upper thighs with glass shards and razors. I was not immune to the lure of violence. But for reference, this gun did bother me from the beginning.
5. We camp on the side of a hill off of I-40 in Utah in a rocky and unprotected spot not at all meant for camping. Note to self: potatoes take longer than thirty minutes when cooked in foil over an open camp fire, and crunchy potatoes are not delicious, but they do fill a caloric need when camping. It’s freezing once the sun drops out. I go in and out of dreams. In the one dream I remember, Edward Abbey pipebombs a row of tricked-out RVs. He’s spent months in a lab he’s built in a cave and he’s emerged with an eradicative potion of sorts “intended to combat modernity,” he shouts. Prufrock is on the scene, that epic wuss. He mutters about human voices and drowning, and Abbey calls him an innocuous twat and says no one likes hearing about dreams, no one, (yet here we are) and Eliot the anti-Semitic puppeteer calls Abbey and Prufrock the horrible yin and yang of blowhards. But Abbey hangs on. He won’t let it go. He shrieks about postmodernism. Even modernism was evil, you pale thug, he shouts and knocks Eliot down and then starts shredding all that is even remotely contemporary until the land is just sheared cliffside and wild radish and there are no through roads anywhere to be seen.
6. Even though Edward Abbey opposed it, there is a long and winding road through Arches National Park. Large white people look out tinted RV windows at Delicate Arch. They slow down a little to point and ooh. They eat crackers out of cellophane and direct their eyes toward improbable assemblages of orange rock. “This is like being close to God,” I hear one of them say when we walk past one of the RVs with its half-open window. Tim rolls his eyes.
My grandmother though once Jewish had converted to Christian Science and then convinced me the devil could take up occupancy inside of a person and spin illness out of negativity. Spiny metal page markers porcupined out of the side of all of her Mary Baker Eddy books. It’s exactly this, that chemical spread of badness that my grandmother imagined but no longer entombed in bodies, now spreading through the land. My grandmother used a cigarette holder at parties. She laughed louder than other grandmothers. She didn’t bake. She ate Grape-Nuts without milk simply for the rigor of it. But then also all of this: stand up straight. Look pretty. Brush your hair. Be quiet. Let him do it. Smile. He wants to do it. And for all the years up to this one, I had.
This is not a road trip story. There are no antics. This is a story about aging out of the frivolity of 21, 22, 23, etc., in a dying world. Just so you know.
7. When Bruce Springsteen interrupts Clarence Clemmons to scream sing whisper about Badlands and finding a face that’s not looking through him and spitting in the face of Badlands, it’s surely just to you because you’re with someone to whom you’ve said very little for hours and in Nevada, on the self-titled “Loneliest Highway in America,” and the world is a salt flat with sage weaving through sand and mountains on burned-out mountains laughing at your desire for a public bathroom or some food that isn’t orange cheese crackers in a plastic jacket.
In this story, your ghosts of deserts past and future await you at a Nevada
campground a few miles from the spot at which the Loneliest Highway merges
with the interstate, a campground which, for reference, sits a few blocks
from a motel with a pool that’s gone green with algae. “Civilization,” Tim
says with sarcasm when we unload the tent and erect it in its designated
rectangle. The desert is still pervasive, but this is not the campground of
Abbey’s dreams. We didn’t pack in; we drove right up to a campsite with a
grill planted like a tree next to it, and there is a stone building near
our tent where people microwave frozen pizzas and play bingo.
Pretty girl, pretty girl, your ghost of desert past will chant in the way of a parrot while standing with folded arms in front of something you think might be a Joshua Tree but likely isn’t because you’re still a state away from California. Pretty girl, because you’ve done a good job of that. Be quiet. Look good. Don’t take up space. She’ll be in fake Doc Martens and a flowered vintage baby doll dress. She will be at a bar or a party and this or that plaid-shirted boy will be forever trying to grab her breasts without asking. Your ghost of desert future will be much older than Bruce of Darkness on the Edge of Town but younger than aging stadium Bruce and in the passenger seat of a car passing the Bean Flat Rest Area, Highway 50, Nevada, with two kids in the back seat eating bulk candy and fighting over whether one should be allowed to read the back cover of the book the other is reading. Yelp says pizza is the only option, and in the town there will be a cemetery right in the middle, its green carpet lawn a green that shouldn’t happen in NV, and you’ll hate your husband a little less than the day before. Your ghost of desert future will put “Hang Fire” on because it reminds you of something you want to grab onto you’re not sure what, and your ten-year-old son will say, “Hang fire stands for a slow plan,” and you’ll think, this is certainly the slow plan but won’t say it out loud, and the desert will still be sage and tan with the mountains circling and who knew how many hidden military outposts and underground bunkers hived under the roadways. A year before, Tim will have Facebooked messaged from Reno where he appeared to have married a woman who “lived to cycle” and where apparently he only did a year in prison because the whole thing with the gun in the bar was accidental, and where he worked in radio sales, which he said was a dying industry but then wasn’t it all.
Your ghost of desert present is at the campground an hour east of Reno in a Walmart tent, nothing really ready for wind or weather, both of which come, surprisingly, after a day-long blanket of heat and inaction. By 10 PM, it’s 45 degrees with winds that pull the tent to the side. Plus an entire troupe of motorcyclists rolled into the campground soon after we’d set up the tent, after we’d eaten beans from a can and hard candy, and the bikers throw their empties against the trashcans so that every few minutes there is a brash clatter of broken glass. It’s midnight and after two hours of attempted sleep when we give in, shove the tent into the back of the truck without fully and appropriately disassembling it, and drive down the block to the motel. The motel might be a motel prototype: two floors, iron railing with chipping paint, old soda machines in alcoves, a billboard in view of the second story that promises “showgirls” in pink silhouette.
My grandmother died in a two-piece fuchsia nylon track suit that looked stolen from 1980s David Byrne. She was 87 but still barricaded the door of her assisted living room to keep the aides out for over an hour because what did they know about how to pray illness and maybe even old age away? She sat against the door in the one room that was hers, surrounded by her Japanese pottery, her brass-framed family photos, the water-spotted folded letters from her long-dead brother. That door-blocking was her last fuck you to authoritarianism, and of course she looked good doing it. When she sat on the floor and died right there, there was no floating away of the soul from the body. There was no perfect garden. There was no puffy cloud moment. That was just it. The end, while outside the window, the last un-built-upon suburban field in a ten-mile radius boasted a pack of screeching starlings following each other above the tallgrass in a balletic and frantic pattern of swoops and swirls. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. At least that’s what David Byrne says.
8. Outer Reno, actually Fernley, was not the desert Edward Abbey had imagined. But it’s what 21st Century Americans had done with it anyway. Xfinity, strippers, International House of Pancakes, Bourbon Square, the center doesn’t hold. There is a feeling of hyperactivity before absolute dissolution. Will it come from civil war, those white boys with their AR-15s stalking through Wal-Mart parking lots to make some inscrutable point finally summoned to the fight of their dreams? Will there be an end to currency? Will all the air conditioners time out until we’re wandering in shredded clothes toward the still-cool pockets of the pine forests? Who knew?
The bar by the motel is what you would expect. Dark wood, a couple of ancient pinball machines, the standard few very drunk men leaning over on bar stools. No one takes my “Austin, NV Café: Willie Eats For Free” t-shirt ironically. But there were a few nods to my skirt which was 1950s but hemmed short and flounced out in a sort of Sandra Dee meets Will Rogers kind of a way. Tim and I sit through what feels like a Jukebox worth of bad new country music about dead dogs and big trucks. We drink several beers before Tim gets up to go to the bathroom. One of the drunk men moves onto his stool. Tim is a small man but strong, and when he comes back from the bathroom drunk and deposed of his stool, he doesn’t even pause before pushing the man off. It’s out of character, as least I think it is, but even after a year of off and on dating and a week or so on the road, I’m fairly sure I don’t know him at all.
9. Edward Abbey challenges Annie Dillard to a fist fight, but she is uninterested. She paces a square around a shed that’s in the center of a field where mice have woven tunnels through tall grass. She wears tall boots made of something indestructible but somehow unchemical. Her hair covers her face, and she doesn’t bring a hand up to pull it out of the way. She brushes Edward Abbey aside, though. She stalks. She wanders. She looks up. She stares at her feet. The sky changes. She stands still. She wonders but not in a Jane Austen or Edna Pontellier way. There is no soft or uncertain contemplating. Her look is a razor. And then the gun goes off. Edward Abbey jumps. He angers. But Annie Dillard doesn’t even startle. She knew this was coming. She has no interest in ranting. She’s pulled a dead raccoon from the crawl space under the shed and thrown it in a creek for a water burial. She’s tried squirrel. She probably sees the future and keeps walking toward it anyway.
The gun is in Tim’s hand, and that’s no surprise. His face doesn’t have time to startle. No one is dead, you see that. The best tactic is to pretend I don’t know him and walk out of the orange-painted metal door, past the block-long Ben’s Discount Liquors, and just keep going. It matters that I have been the keeper of the keys and the cash and by 6 AM I am in a small town by the ocean, and by the next day I have a job bussing tables at a brewery. I spend my days off on a beach where driftwood trunks bigger than trucks are covered with the carved initials of strangers, and there are more dogs than people. The water is too cold to swim in at first, but after a few months I get used to it and go each morning past the more tepid pool of water that’s been trapped inland during high tide, past the sand bar, and out to the big waves where I submerge myself fully until I feel more idea than person. The shorn-off trees hang quiet on the cliff sides. The bees flicker through the blackberry bushes. The water repeats itself, as always.
10. Fifty years from now, the world will be the same but not. Knees will go. Hips will go. All the glass bottles will be broken, and their blue and green and brown shards soft at the edges will creep up on the sand the way the sea creatures we remember in dreams once did. Fish will be the stuff of tall tales. Edward Abbey will echo in all the orange canyons. We’ll half sleep through Annie Dillard’s rubber-booted footsteps in the tall grass, and the glass fragments will stare unblinking like the washed-out eyes of the dead.