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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.
Find the rest in issue 10 >>>
Check out Nailing It, more tales from the road.
Anna and I are driving from Western to Eastern Oregon, off to see geology and fossils and deep time in Eastern Oregon. But before we even begin our exploration of the ancient, we must finish getting there, five hours by car. And on the way, we've got to pit stop for food and gas. In spite of deep time—the earth dating back 4.6 billion years—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.
ECHOES, ECHOES, ECHOES
The booth was chockablock with locals. Men and women in equal number, interlarded, shoulder-to-shoulder. The men wore loose fitting wash-n-wear shirts, blue jeans, and cowboy hats. The women donned white blouses, yellowed, brocade sewn round the sleeves, and slacks in pastel colors, permanent-press creases running thigh to ankle. Everyone’s hair tolerated feral strands of grey, fraying. They spoke loudly, unconcerned with being overheard. Their talk was punctuated with the practiced pauses of pulpit preaching, those intoned corrections, shepherd to the lamb. Yet, unlike the preacher, they spoke stiffly. The words numb on their lips, this was not ranch talk but something transplanted.
One cowboy disparaged a political enemy. A woman, responding, chimed approval and pitched in an insult. Another woman anted up an animosity. They laughed without mirth. Then they were silent, looking away, avoiding each other’s eye. Everyone sat together, warming themselves over the talk, amicable in their field, chewing, rheumatic, staring. While the talk sounded shallowly rooted amongst the ranchers, the rhetoric itself was familiar to a far away place.
Somewhere in the distance, far from this small town café in Madras, talk show hosts were shouting the selfsame words into microphones. Further off, in think tanks and PR firms, consultants sat in brightly lit offices and forged those words. Words they blew into cables and shortwave, words that traveled far and that sprang out of speakers and bounced off the walls of a vast human landscape, where those words were recited over and over by listeners: listeners who repeated the words like echoes off the walls of an ancient canyon, listeners who went to lunch with friends yet spoke not of friendship, or of horses or ranches or work or love or loss. People who were friendly yet spoke in unfriendly voices.
The rancher’s table talk drifted and overlapped the booth next to them, where Anna and I sat conferring about destinations, maps, and plans. Every so often, we peered out the window at the cars and trucks passing by and, just behind that, at the scrappy uprise blocking the horizon. For me, the cafe scene was like a cult film, wherein earthy ranchers had been dubbed over with the voices of Gucci politicos.
After we finished our sandwiches, I bought a cookie, and the two of us headed back to the car and back onto the highway. We were on a sojourn to see fossils and ancient ash and rock and river, things that gave testimony to all that has gone before, to history, to pre-history, to deep time. All the same, our trip was becoming more than that. Thinking about time past had us doing a double take on time present and everything in it.
People. Buildings. Towns. Roads. Buttes. Boulders. Basins. Grasslands. Plants and animals. Canyons and cliffs. Fossils. Volcanoes. Snow and rain and sun.
Along the highway, the roadway was grinding beneath the car tires and we listened. The lines in the road disappeared beneath the front bumper and we watched. The scenery rolled along beside us and we took it in.
Along the highway there were dusty hills—strewn with rock and boulder and tufts of grass and mangy bush—that rose abruptly up and fell away, each its own denouement. And we drove.
At times we talked.
At times we were silent, watching the show. Canyons, yawning, narrow, and somber, snuck up from the earth to run next to us, or to swallow us, the highway drifting down into a canyon gullet. At times the canyon walls were lizard skinned, cracked and scaly, armored and ancient. At times they were burnished by the wind, who rubbed stone until it took on the wind’s smooth shape, who made such sculptures just because, and whose sculptures are everywhere.
Along the highway the grey sky dissolved to blue, the white clouds streaking across the dome. On the horizon before us were shape-shifting ranges, mesas lit by a tangerine sunlight that cut craggy shadows into bluffs, fathomless and two dimensional lines worn into aging faces. Aging faces that could have been any of the café’s ranchers.
Along the highway, time itself let slip a wink in our direction.
And we drove on.
We were coming to the point of no return. The next hundred miles were dry county for gasoline. We had been so warned. Back and forth we went through the streets of Prineville, where we had detoured, last chance gas. Back and forth we went, eyeballing anything resembling a gas pump. Anna, situated in the passenger seat, trip navigator and trip designer, was working the mobile Internet, which was proving of spotty value.
“Have you found anything?”
It was Veteran’s Day. Prineville’s main drag was lined with American flags, staked at regular intervals, large flags of uniform size, some fifty feet apart toward the horizon line, on both sides of the road. The air was still. The flags hung their heads. As we passed between the two rows, it felt like a discounted presidential motorcade. All that was missing were tiny flags fluttering on the fenders and a presidential wave.
The complaint could be made that the number of flags overstated their point to a degree of amusement. It caused me to bust into a smile. But this was clearly a bosom message among locals, not intended for the outsider passing through. Prineville, abandoned by its economic meat and potatoes, Les Schwab and his tires, had more recently attracted Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and his server farms. An explanation for the excessive flag arrangement may, in part, be harbored in the flapping affections of such well-endowed yet fickle industries. Whatever the reason, the display left no doubt regarding the town’s enthusiasm.
Meantime, between flags, Anna and I found a refueling station. And pulled in.
“Is the town of Mitchell that way?”
Talking out the driver side window to the station attendant, I pointed behind me.
“I… ah. I don’t know,” the man stammered.
The attendant appeared startled by the question. And he frowned.
Seeing the attendant’s reaction, I felt bad for asking. Yet his response was curious, considering that, although fifty miles away, a long stretch of road through the Ochoco National Forest and beyond, Mitchell was the next town over. And Mitchell did not have a gas station open to the public. You’d figure “Last Chance Gas” would be all part of the Prineville shtick. Apparently not. I felt like a real city slicker.
I peered into the side view mirror at the pump nozzle, stuck in the rear quarter panel, refueling the car. The gasoline powering our trip through time was itself a product of deep time and history. Dead plants dating back millions of years, fossilized, pressurized, and cooked by the earth, were this very day providing us locomotion along the highway, where we planned to check out vestiges of deep time. Deep time fueling a trip through deep time. This was deep time in midstream, after all, and things were not what they seemed.
I paid the attendant, who beat a hasty retreat, and we pulled out of station, hooked right, and, sure enough, we were on our way to Mitchell.
DRY AND DESOLATE
On the road through Prineville, I noticed the same terrain as earlier in Madras. The same fluorescence and kitsch and colored stores and colorless box stores and uniform houses, salted with bits of historic architecture, against a backdrop of demonstrably wild nature. Car dealerships shone under tall silver poles supporting incandescent bulbs, blazing white light, illuminating row after row of new automobiles on sprawling lots. Real estate offers promised and prompted and teased from road signs and shoebox offices, glowing like fresh paint. Cafés contended for the affections of highway traffic, gritty neon and clapboard and hand-painted signs, dusty with promises of breakfast lunch dinner, put forth a world-weary effort, like middle-aged singles lining the walls of a tired dance hall.
Sprinkled throughout were the neutral bromides and fast food doldrums of chain stores, confirming that you can now go almost anywhere on earth, no matter how far fetched, and find the exact structures and business and products and ideas, saturated with red and green and orange and yellow. Amongst it all were people at work and life, teaming, propagating, and broadcasting. Their homes, the family housing of Prineville, drew lines, with persistent regularity and uniformity, into the eccentric natural landscape. Quirky hillocks rose in surprising locations, oddball sugarloafs and basins. Stubborn rocks and boulders of every shape and size scattered across fields, up the slopes of hills, and resting in depressions. Motley grasses and bushes and trees, their unkempt heads of hair, twisted vines, leathered tree trunks and knuckled branches, suffered openly, reaching and variegated.
Prineville sponsors a message for visitors, which is worth reading. A message that addresses the landscape, as follows. At first appearance the countryside might look dry and desolate. A closer look, however, finds golf courses, fishing opportunities, tall timber forests, a busy community and happy people. The tone of the message was like a note of apology for having left dirty dishes in the sink, belying a sense that unbridled nature is foreign, a stranger to man, and therefore suspect: dirty dishes in need of a good scrub.
For my part, however, I found the landscape deeply attractive. And not once did I doubt the happiness of the locals. Okay, well… maybe a little. Especially the gas station attendant.
But I did not blame the bitterbrush.
And we drove on.
We passed a sign. It bore a name we’d seen a lot of since crossing the mountain range. There was the town John Day. The river John Day. The John Day fossil beds. John Day Dam. And Dayville.
From all the honorarium, you’d think John Day to have been an noteworthy explorer, statesman, nonpareil, a local hero. Not at all. Unlucky. Mad. Depressed. Known exclusively for coming to Oregon in frontier times, and, in so doing, coming to misfortune, John Day from Virginia distinguished himself for his lack of fortune. Ill on the trail and nearly died. Helped by an Indian. Robbed and stripped naked by other Indians, left to die. Helped by Indians. Eventually, the fellow snapped, insane and suicidal. John Day, hunter, trader, trapper, and miner, a man of middle age, made the muster of history for being jinxed.
And we drove on.
Winding through highway turns and into the Ochocos, surrounded by ponderosa pines, whose high-wasted and spacious foliage broke the sun’s rays in dappled light, I had plenty of time to both take in the sights while daydreaming about this fellow, John Day. As a symbol, the man was growing on me. His name marks today’s Eastern Oregon as randomly as he would have marked the bushes near his campfire. Yet, unlike the traditional prig in powdered wig and cast in bronze, riding a horse or riding some justice, there is a humanity to this man’s story. A humility—of smallness and strife. Of the ongoing catastrophe of things. His infamy gives off a sense of history as something… arbitrary. Accidental. Scruffy.
He fits right into the landscape.
Stay tuned for more offbeat adventures and people and creatures, palisades, mudflows, fossils, and painted hills in The Deep Now part 3 >>>!
Welcome to the Folks Press tour of the taboo. It's bathroom culture, a long neglected destination spot. It's the wild and the weird, the revealing and the non sequitur, the lewd and loud. This is a private tour but we promise you won't be lonely.
Yup, it’s a software-operated toilet. With too many options and no user manual. A soul is left with nothing less than the joys of figuring it out. While devoid of documentation, imprinted upon this device is a kind of report on society. That is to say, this object begs an august question, as follows. Will history remember software engineers as cult sadists? In this device, the Digital John, the question is laid bare, naked, yawning before the void.
The birth of the binary loo; it was bound to happen; that day is nigh. Our world is changed forever. Expect to find, in the wake of this novelty, other commodes, such as the situation comedy. For example, shows premised upon the inevitable mishaps of this leap forward for mankind, the latest marvel from the masterminds of the revolution. Moreover, potty humor, always desperate for fresh material, just caught a break.
Among the features of the Digital John is a programmed bidet. Most corporate workers dream of being a team member on such a project. Also featured is a certain black box prurience. Accordingly, it takes a software-gaming-app-downloading-socially-networked-iReader-reading-GoogleGlass-stumbling-iPhone-obsessed subadult to tempt the unreliability and maleficence of digital technology with aiming jets of water at their overexposed privates. Grown ups, schoolteachers, and folks casting in the dark for consciousness are rightly circumspect.
While Silicon Valley bots soldier on the bleeding edge of their disruptive consciousness, and their revolutionary juggernaut persists, we are safe to assume that a line has been crossed in the making of this machine.
WARNING: Misuse, programming bugs, and user error are not only anticipated but inevitable. Don’t look down.
SUPERSONIC HAND DRYER
When unable to make it to the tarmac and stand behind a jet engine during takeoff, there is always a certain bathroom hand dryer. When bereft a weekend in the Antarctic, again, the selfsame hand dryer to the rescue. Enjoy a bludgeoning to the ears, frostbite upon the hands, as the jet propulsive air, tearing the flesh from your bones, runs stone cold, like your heart. Then, return to dinner.
PEEK-A-BOO I SEE YOU
The opposite sex is often just on the other side of wall in public bathrooms. You can hear a toilet seat slam, the rushing water of draining pipes. There are the mysterious conks and pops, the hiss of the sink coming on and off, the whoosh of the towel dispenser. There is a wall but the distance is slight, a propinquity.
You figure just about everybody has thought about it, whether in the conscious, semi-conscious, or unconscious mind. In dreams or daydreams. It’s an animal thing. But spying on the opposite sex going about their toilet is rarely done in real life (for good reason). Here is a bathroom, however, that delivers a tease to the taboo. In other words, be frightened.
There are clear glass stripes in that mirror. Peek-a-boo. I see you.
In this bathroom, bird song chirps from a speaker, a companion throughout your business. During the visit, ideas come to mind. Certain ideas that elude coherence, the way an donkey swishes its tail, tempting you to grab it. All the while dodging your grip. The experience is pleasing but unproductive.
The amp was on the fritz the evening we came out to record it—and the bird would not sing. The owner wore a glum face. "I messed with it," he said. "But there are those problems beyond your experience…" He shook his head. But this problem was not beyond us. We improvised…
"You’re not alone."
This consolation brings solace to people everywhere. But in the context of the public toilet, the phrase takes on a new tenor. While a public bathroom is a shared experience, a shared site, most of us have a sense of being alone in there. The virtue of a door is that it can be closed. In this bathroom, however, no matter the locked door, a famous figure is always looking in.
Stay tuned for future Toilet Tales in upcoming issues.
Witness the Now Lately!
This issue, Leo interviews showman Noah Mickens. Pink elephants and rhinoceros. Noah's childhood. Brecht. Los Angeles. Broadway musicals. Freaky, weird, dirty Portland. The Wanderlust Circus. Lip synchs. Absurdity. Rim shots.
Not since Front / Nixon has there been a dynamic duo such as this in a four part interview. That is to say: there's more where this came from! Three more interviews to be exact. Leo and Noah rage on in the next issue. Check it out in May 2014's Folks Press Issue #12…
Watch it now. Don't be late.
Hundreds of travelers pass through Union Way daily, yet most of them pass by the elevator that goes up to the offices in the higher stories of the building. It's a talkative machine: it clanks, it rumbles, it whooshes. A brief exchange, but a physical one that reminds the rider, as she manually pulls open the door to the body of the lift, that this is a mechanism with history—a part of the history of urban human transport.
The City Above is nonexistent. Until one looks up. And there it is, flying overhead.
It's a city of lines. Straight and crisscrossing, drooping and taut, the City Above crackles with intelligence, power, and things to say. Suspended by wood and metal dowel, the city is lines that free float in the air, blowing with the wind, held aloft by lines and crosses that rise up from the fixed ground. Entirely abstract, a work of graphic design, the City Above is order reigning upon the chaos below. A chaos that is brightly active, constantly shuffling, kaleidoscopic, gaudy. A mess.
The City Above is dissimilar. Black and indifferent on the outside, it is gold on the inside, sparkling with energy. Inside is life. Outside is death. Don't touch. Its mind is savant, its soul autistic. This city delivers life but cares not if creatures perish. The City Above directs enormous power, the pathways in its mind sparkling yet stoic. Birds stand on the outside and sing.
The City Above has children. It gives birth to the activity beneath its umbrage, granting permission to stay warm, move about in the dark, feed. Messages hang from its lines, talking to the creatures below in primary colors. Green and red. Yellow. Stop. Go. Danger. While made of string, the City Above pulls the strings. And we obey.