Don't forget to check out Nailing It, more tales from the road.
Cruising along at 70 mph, down the highway and between craggy outcropping, scruffy brush, tortured trees, and deep canyons, sheltered in a white sedan, I’m tolerating an earworm from pop music long past. We are sojourning west from the green Willamette Valley of Oregon, up over the cool Cascade Mountain range, back down to dry Eastern Oregon, and over desert to the area surrounding the John Day Fossil Beds, where all manner of prehistory—flora, fauna, rock, earth and ash—dwell in plain view, for all to see. A place where time itself is on display. The song in my head concerns time travel, apropos of the journey. But it’s little more than chintzy commentary from the subconscious. And it’s kind of ruining the scenery.
The road signs are likewise budget reminders that Anna and I are on A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME. Repeating all along Highway 26, these state sponsored signs burn the idea into my head, not unlike the repeating chorus in a pop song. Or an earworm.
The landscape itself, however, is more than enough to ensnare and hypnotize. Each time the highway drops below the surface terrain and cuts deep into the earth, our vehicle skirts between the canyon walls of deep time, a geologist’s erotic dream and a pretty fascinating way to see the world. Ultimately, there’s no such thing as just rocks.
Geologic history, thought to be 4.6 billion years in arrears, might well be branded heavy time, for all the implications of a vast expanse of bygone events. Contemplations of which obliterate the day-to-day human reality in an unfurling incomprehension at all that has come before. If a human life seems short, consider the centuries these boulders have weathered, and life gets downright brusque.
Meanwhile, we’re simply sailing down the highway. I say nothing of the ear affliction to my traveling companion, Anna. She is watching the panorama gliding by, thrilled with the scenery, untortured. Friendships are built on such courtesies.
THE ILLUSTRATED COW
A half hour earlier, coming off the last leg of the mountain pass, we spied yellow road signs illustrated with a solitary black cow. The signs were wordless; the cow was the message. An odd sight amongst the evergreen forest and snow markers and brooding sky. And no cows. Or so it seemed, until, a short time later, the highway exited the mountain pass, leveled out flat, and rolled onto the high desert. This was cow country. And in no uncertain terms. We began to pass through field after field, vast in size, of grazing black beasts, a place where dairy is eschewed, along with most brown cows, and in its place burgers and steaks are sired.
The illustrated cow was starting to make sense. But this is just the beginning.
MYTHIC ROAD SHOW
Two days later, we are driving a highway that snakes through a deep valley. It’s night. Night in the middle of nowhere. The highway is unlit and the surrounding hills are saturnine silhouettes against the moonlight ghosting over the ridgeline. We’ve seen no other car for the last half hour of darkness. The sole light in the entire valley is from us, two headlight beams. The beams illuminate the road ahead for some fifty feet. All else is night.
The road darts this way and that before us, the turns appearing just in time, as if some illuminated magic show. The two of us are chatting, when appearing abruptly in the beams is a two legged and headless monster. It’s smack dab in the middle of the road, standing astride the centerline. At fifty mph, objects come up fast and automobiles stop slowly. But, after a protracted feeling of inertia pulling at the sedan, we stop in time, before colliding with the creature. The car idles in the dark, lights shining on the colossus.
Its form was indistinct but struck me as belonging to a brown bear. Which was disconcerting, given the ease with which a disgruntled bear of this size can peel back the roof of your car, a moment in my imagination akin to a pull-tab coming off a beer can. And there was more disturbing news. Another brown monster lingered in the shadows, immediately left.
“What is it?”
Anna did not answer. She stared out the front window, puzzled, unknowing.
Hand on the gearshift, I prepared to reverse into the void behind. But boy was it dark that direction, another kind of danger. If only I could get a bead on the creature’s identity. It was only few seconds of time, but, honestly, I was becoming frantic. We are, after all, in the middle of road, in the middle of nowhere. You don’t get saved just in time in a place like this.
“Is it a bear?” I asked Anna, again, seeking confirmation, my voice breaking.
Anna said nothing. Her head bent at angle, she continued to peer out the window, trying to get a fix on the creature.
Just then, from around the far side of the brown body in the road came a head, swinging toward us in a fluid motion. A gigantic cow’s head. The biggest I’d ever seen. And it glowered at us.
“It’s a cow,” said Anna.
I could now see that we had been facing down the rear end and two hind legs of a massive dairy cow. This was good news, of course. Though, we still were required to get past the thing.
Relieved yet still apprehensive, I engaged the clutch, and we rolled toward the creature. It did not move, remaining staunchly rooted, owning not just the centerline but the highway. I steered far right, giving the creature the widest berth possible on the narrow strip of pavement. As we passed, the great head swung all the way the other way round toward us. Lit spookily by the peripheral car light, the cow head glared into our window, a reproach for trespassers, a vexing stare. Intimately close.
And I accelerated into the night.
The moral of this story is this. Out here, the more absurd the road sign, the more serious the warning. On this particular stretch of road, we had passed a road sign that repeated every so often, over and over, dotting the highway, a variation on the sign from the mountain pass. This one displayed a lazy cow and a solitary warning. LIVESTOCK.
There was more to that moment than just a cow in the road and an illustrated sign. What we see is often shaped by what we expect to see. Before our encounter with the cow in the road, Anna and I had spent the previous two days soaking up a world full of fossils, dioramas, and renderings of ancient animals in an ancient landscape, often Frankenstein mishmashes of things familiar and foreign. Sheep-horse. Painted-hill. Sabre-tooth house cat. Palisade-cliff. Dog-bear.
This is a mythic place where hybrid creatures, part goat and part horse, actually once roamed a fantastic horizon of abstract earth and epic sunrises. Mythic and real. A kind of ancient Egypt in the rough, absent the people. No wonder the two of us were confused by the beast in the road. In that moment of urgency, instead of indexing things familiar and topical, our minds were rifling through a catalogue of the world long past and the one to come.
I’m getting ahead of the story, however. Before we even begin our exploration of the ancient, we must finish getting there by car. And on the way, we've got to pit stop for food and gas. In spite of deep time, life is still made up of the countless daily due. And, while stopped, we find ourselves among something curious: the world ongoing, overrun by humans.
Deep time in midstream.
Stay tuned. This is only part 1 of The Deep Now.
Seriously. After closing and locking the door to a bantam-sized bathroom, a fellow turns to face the room. See, there’s a mini porcelain sink, its corners rounded and faucet tall, with a giraffe’s bend to a neck of sparkling chrome. And there’s walls that shine white, reflecting light from a tasteful overhead fixture. Everything’s perfectly suited to the joint, an Argentinian Steakhouse in New York City, aspirational and de rigueur.
But there’s trouble in paradise. A gander at the toilet, a sit-down apparatus, modern, low, and sporty, situated at the far wall, tells him so. For some cretin has horse-pissed the thing. The seat is flooded, all round its half moon, and, like a rural road in winter, reflecting on the surface are… puddles. Seriously, this pissing is so over-the-top as to strike the fellow as a bizarre homage. It’s a cup raised robustly to incaution, to the unstudied, and spilled over the rim.
Yet::::::: not. Not really.
In the end, the fellow decides: it’s a pig’s mess. Short form.
…Not a problem. Our fellow’s business requires only that he stand, and do so at a distance from the malpractice. Except there’s a glitch. This bantamweight pit stop is the only bathroom in the joint, and is therefore—yup. Unisex. There’s the rub, pure and simple. The fellow thinks to himself just this. Upon exiting the bathroom, whom will he encounter waiting outside, ready to enter? It could be no one. But there are other possibilities worthy of consideration. Waiting just outside that white door could be the cutie-pie with whom he locked eyes on the way into the café, a damper on the evening élan. Heading the queue might also be the elderly woman from the corner table, who struck the fellow as judgmental. Something about the periodic eyeballing she gave him, leaning curtly in his direction.
However he looks at it, the moment he opens that door, the fellow immediately lays claim to this ode to drinking and miscalculation. In the mind of whoever comes next, the fellow is transformed from an anonymous dining guest to a churl, spending the remainder of his steak and potato dinner as a horse-pissing fink. They should teach this in school, see. Now that would be helpful. To clean up the mess? Which is not his. Or to not clean up the mess? And have it become his. That’s the question.
The fellow glances at a wire basket of paper towels, and there are but two, total. One for the seat, one for his hands. Pretty slim pickings. There’s an unpleasant intimacy to this moment, like stumbling upon a quarrelling couple, who pause and stare, waiting to continue the fight. Suddenly, you’re implicated.
The fellow sets to work. No one will thank him, no one will know. It can’t be done for the congratulations. There is about this anonymous gift to the next person something of a monk’s reward, however, silent and for oneself alone. Turns out the fellow is lucky. This time he receives a small reward for his efforts. Upon exiting, he bumps into the elderly lady at the front of the line and, immediately following, waits the cutie-pie. Who smiles.
Well, I’ll be damned. Right on….
As the fellow returns to his seat, he thinks, it’s a public bathroom, okay. Seriously. You gotta go and that’s all there is to it. Yeah, right, in your dreams. See, a public restroom may be private, but no one is really alone in there. It’s all negotiations.
A man enters a unisex bathroom with caution. On the other side are circumstances altogether foreign to the Men’s Room. The meter for social blunder runs hot and there is more than one way to error. Ahem.
The door lock alone presents a distinct dilemma. A woman may have forgotten to lock the door, for example. If you’re the hapless bloke who turns that knob and pushes open that Pandora’s box, it’s hard to make right this blunder. Unlikely is a sunny friendship to follow this gaffe. An apology seems in order. But it takes time to apologize, which would result in lingering. Not good. And even if an apology is spoken in the execution of a quick exit, head bowed, there remains an air of suspicion that the man may not be all that sorry.
The better option might be an exclamation, such as “damn!” Or “oh shit!” Exclamations offer the advantage of sounding at the same time like excitement and remorse. Which can appear more honest. The ambiguity of exclamations, in this way, can stand in for a credible expression of the inexpressible. Be that as it may, certain exclamations are no-nos. For instance: wow!
A female acquaintance, however, had a whole different take on this situation, saying: “It’s an opportunity.” An opportunity for what, she declined to say. She’s Swedish. That may account for something.
Stay tuned for future Toilet Tales in upcoming issues.
Right out of high school, my younger brother and I had a rock band. We practiced six days a week. In order to sustain this habit, we both worked short order in the local diner. On the job, there was a strict dress code. We wore the tall, starched white hats that were part of the uniform of the day, along with brown pants and clunky boots. Not great for the band’s image, but it paid the bills.
One day, I came to work the weekend day shift with my brother. He had started early and was already on the line, his starched hat bobbing up and down the line kitchen. This was the busiest shift of the week, yet, when I came around the corner to the kitchen, there was my brother doing everything with his opposite hand.
I stood and watched him for a minute. Normally right handed, he was flipping four eggs using his left. Flipping eggs is no walk in the park, and four at once just increases the odds for failure. Not the most efficient way to tackle the job.
“What’re you doing?”
My brother glanced at me and rushed crabwise to the grill and flipped some hot cakes—using his left hand. He looked at me, held up the spatula in a salute, and smiled.
“I wanna break up the routine, keep things new, fresh,” he said. “Doing everything left-handed makes me have to experience all the small stuff.”
He slid the eggs off the pan and onto a 10” plate, speared the hot cakes from underneath with a spatula and dropped those on the plate, opposite the eggs, and set the plate underneath the heat lamp, and rang the bell for the waitress. All using his left hand.
His right hand hung at his side.
I laughed. It was funny. But my brother had a point. Convenience teaches us nothing, other than to crave greater convenience. Unlike the left hand of the devil, from which there is much to learn.
A photo essay with text
Whenever leaving the home, whether to work, store, errand or out-of-town, you are not just traveling: you are a traveler. The savvy traveler pays attention; the poor traveler takes things for granted. The street as simply a means to an end distracts a traveler from noticing that a road is full of choices, full of interactions with others.
WE ARE INTERSECTING
Cars are nothing more than a modern phenomena, dangerous, thrilling, and strange: people resting in reclining chairs, phones and stereos at the ready, hurtling forward with speed, armored in steel and plastic and glass. Yet it's still people, people interacting with each other in fuel-injected living rooms.
In cars, we play a game. There are few rules, and the logic is simple. We, the players, pretend to be objects. (Hey everybody: I'm a machine.)
But it's a lie.
We are travelers on a journey, long or short. Travelers amongst other travelers. Although we call it traffic, every journey, every destination, every cause, is different. And there we are, all together on the highway, the arterial, the side-street, or country road. We are changing lanes.
Every road has its intersections. At every intersection are travelers. We are intersecting. Here we meet. Cross paths. And go on our way. All the while, the truth is unchanging. There are no machines. Only operators.