Letter number 14 details my plans for an escape from New York. At this point I had only been in the megalopolis for four months, but I was ready to beat a retreat. I'm trying to get my high school buddy Kevin -- who attended Stanford while I was on the other side of the Bay at Berkeley, and who at the time I was writing lived and worked in Washington, D.C. -- to drive across the country with me in a 1971 Volkswagen bus one chilly December. I didn't have a driver's license. I thought if I had Kevin with me, even if I did the majority of the driving, if we were ever pulled over I could say that I was just giving him a break.
Kevin took a pass. I ended up making the trip by myself. I quit my job at the Foundation Center; and then one Friday evening, I took off across the George Washington Bridge. My biggest concern was a brake light that was out and that I hadn't seen fit to have repaired. I thought that this might very well lead to me being pulled over, and depending on where I was at the time (my plan was to head south to I-40 to get out of the cold December temperatures) and without a valid driver's license, I could end up tossed into some backwater pokey.
After driving for a few hours I had to get off the highway at a town somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania and find a residential street to park and get some sleep. Despite the fact that I had the heater going full blast, I couldn't feel my feet to operate the pedals; it was well below freezing, in the single digits. Fortunately my wife, right before I left New York City, had pulled the down comforter off our bed and forced it on me. All I had planned on taking with me was a $20 sleeping bag. I might have frozen to death if not for her savvy thoughtfulness.
Things improved from that night on. It was a bitterly cold wherever I went that December, whether it was Pennsylvania, the Southern states traversed by I-40, California or Oregon. But hunkered down at night inside the metal shell of the bus (I couldn't afford motels) with my $20 sleeping bag and the down comforter I made it through.
The next night I spent in parking lot at a rest stop in eastern Tennessee. I got on the road in the early morning dark and considered visiting the Andrew Johnson National Historical Site in Greeneville, but I didn't want to get off I-81; I wanted to get going straight east to west on I-40. I did stop off at the Hermitage in Nashville. A major renovation was underway, but it was open to the public. Andrew Jackson is buried with his wife Rachel Donelson Jackson out back in the garden. It seemed odd that I was able to freely commune with the tomb of one of our greatest presidents. (As a child I had been captivated by Andrew Jackson thanks to a biography by Patricia Miles Martin. Jackson's story is perfect for a boy: it's filled with duels, battles, bloodshed.) I was alone. No one was about. No guards or volunteers, not even any surveillance cameras. But this was 25 years ago. At the Hermitage gift shop I purchased the post card of Rachel below.
I arrived in Los Angeles a few days later. After several sodden days with my friend Shale I drove north to San Francisco where I spent the night with my ex-girlfriend Stacey (who I wrote about in letter number six). It was cold there too. We went to a Mexican restaurant, and Stacey ended up with food poisoning. She was extremely sick all that night, which we spent together on her mattress on the floor. The next morning she still wasn't feeling well; she wanted me to stay. I couldn't; I had to get back on the road. I had to drive to Oregon where I was going to meet my wife and celebrate Christmas with her family. Stacey implored me to at least walk her roommate's dog before I left, which I did. But I made the mistake of taking the pooch, a young boxer, off leash when we got to a small park near Stacey's apartment, and she proceeded to tear holy hell through the flowers and shrubs. Park workers shouted at me to bring her to heel. There were a couple other dog-walkers there who recognized the roommate's dog and knew her by name and eventually got her under control. They scanned me with an appraising eye and barely concealed distaste.
Stacey never forgave me for leaving her that morning, for not staying to make sure that she was going to be okay. Below is the message I wrote on the back of the Rachel post card. As you can see, I never mailed it:
The quote, "I hear the mountains are doing fine," is from Neil Young's song, "Motion Pictures," off On the Beach (1974), one of his Ditch Trilogy albums that was my Bible from 1987 to 1993:
By now, if you've read any of these old letters, you should know that I was sauced when I typed what you find below.
Took the bus in on election day to get the front end aligned and a grease job and new tire. Except for a quick tune and oil change, the stallion is ready to ride. It's heart is strong -- shit, you can feel it rhyme right under you as you ride down the road. (Ashley is actively opposed; but that's to be expected.) The trip I'm talking about is just one of those things that buzzes in the back of your head while you ride the subway to work. I promised myself early on that I wasn't gonna let this daydream die (because, as I know you know, the daydream saves your life). No, we die too many deaths during the day -- this and that little fantasy cruise on in, and, sadly we let them, consciously, premeditatedly, tweet on by. We convince ourselves, "Never mind, just coffee chatter, just that fucking Diet Coke; it can't mean anything about me, about my worklife pattern." I'm tired of crucifying my secret wants. -------------- So this is my manifesto, and it's labelled ration: I must ride the stallion West: behind the wheel, gas and clutch under foot, like Jason behind the sail of Argo: you must, if you would, come with me.
The earth is supposed to be curved, but we can cut a line across it, like a Roman aqueduct; a skateboard bridge that will shoot us back into the cradle, the West, the land of our inception. -- I got wino trash in my brain and heart, but I'm smart enough to realize that; that the Bible is always a backward look, to home and David and dynasty, and all that unrequited shit. And this isn't bad; it's just some great good mystery, like seeing the ocean at dark. Who knows what'll happen when we get there. I figure we got to hit LA first so we can do Andy and Shale for a few nights. They need and deserve a little of our attention, and we deserve a little of theirs. (My buddy Eric is there and so are Colum and Niall.) We'll get drunk, feel the geography and
time, and maybe even puke, like I did at Stanford that night you guys cut my hair, when you had a different woman. Since then I've puked at least as many times as the pharaohs have died.
(We chopped up Oregon good in high school, thanks to [debate coach] John Treadway. Wow, imagine that. I could always fall asleep the easiest when the debate van was going the fastest; when John T., at three in the morning, was gorging the pedal. Think of that shit we did then as teenagers.)
-- Every story takes place on the road; and if it's not about the road, it's like a road. Jesus died for our sins, and I believe that. I'm pretty sure he didn't die for our sins, that is, for you and me, but he died for that general idea. Jesus was always on the road.