thousand mile home

16 May 2000 5:57pm
Boise, Idaho

My apartment in Los Angeles looks like a leaflet bomb hit it. Stuff is everywhere but mostly it’s paper: magazines and junk mail and newsprint in various forms and more and more and more of the same. The propaganda seems to collectively say to surrender, but not to the American armed forces charging over the hill before you, but instead to the American way of shopping by mail with a pre-approved credit card, so you have stuff cool enough to be in one of the many stacked glossy magazines threatening to topple off the table, onto the couch, smashing the remote and turning on the television to a bunch of infomercials, the video cousin of all the paper that fell over in the first place.

I think it’s just slightly passed comfortably cluttered. While I have no intention of asking, the fire marshal might well have a different view.

But the time has come to seek a new place to call home and there’s no way I can move all that, and no way I should. I spent a good part of a week cleaning out some of the obvious junk mail (how I end up on PC reseller catalog lists is beyond me, as I use a Mac and when someday said Mac is pried from my cold dead hands, I will still never have bought a Wintel PC, thank you very much, and here, have yourself a Windows-borne virus to go with your daily blue-screen-of-death crashes) and nearly all of the newsprint, taking nearly three carloads of the LA Times and LA Weekly and whatnot to be recycled. Then I hit a wall: I have a ton of stuff (probably, if you want to be literal, several tons) that I really don’t need but would like to have, and I don’t know what sort of place I’m going to be moving to. Will I be sharing a place? Unlikely as I prefer to live alone, but it would get my cost of living way down. Nearly everything would have to go. How about a small studio downtown? Possible, but again there would need to be a great purge. A big place somewhere rural? I might well then want the company of all that stuff. And then, over time, I could put it all on eBay. That may or may not be a joke. Or if I live somewhere so rural I have sheep, I can feed it to the sheep. That I hope is a joke.

The amount of stuff and my natural laziness and the lack of good planning information made for a potent cocktail of entropy in action, so to speak. The clear-cutting turned to selective thinning turned to simply letting the woods of my apartment go native again. I spent nearly a whole week doing the photographer’s equivalent of goofing off: I learned some new PhotoShop tricks. Made for some amusement but not much progress of the time-critical sort, as I’d given notice on my apartment and May 31 seemed to be rushing ever closer. Leap and the net will appear, they say, but all I see below me is fog and I bet it’s hiding big jagged rocks. Go ahead, you jump first. I’ll watch.

I decided a trip up to Eugene to scout was in order. I didn’t know if I’d even like the place, let alone what size box I’d live in, and the longer I waited the time I’d have for plan B’s and C’s if needed would shrink. It was not going to be a fun trip; it was going to feel like work. I’d made too many trips recently that felt like work, when my father died and when the time came to finish clearing out his house. Too much was riding on this in my mind to really enjoy it. On top of all that, I-5 is really, really boring.

The night before I was set to go, a detour presented itself. A good friend in Boise, someone I’d planned to visit after the apartment hunt, said sooner was better. Visiting my friend is not work. I used to wear a little button that said “driven by a strong play ethic” and with that mantra in mind, it wasn’t hard to decide to go counter-clockwise around the western US instead of the original plan.


There is no good way by ground to get from Los Angeles to Boise; the line the crow would fly has some decidedly user-hostile mountains on it, and the roads closest to that crow’s flight path are not the most pleasant roads around. I love to drive but right now, I wasn’t in the mood for the white-knuckle approach to things. Sticking to the interstates was several hundred miles out of the way, but probably no slower and certainly safer. I-15, here I come.

Errands R Us kept me in town until after three and I just barely beat both rush hour and the hell that is the Friday evening drive to Las Vegas. I heard somewhere that 40% of the visitors to Las Vegas are from Southern California, and it seems like most of those are trying to cram onto the two northbound lanes of I-15 between 5 and 9pm every Friday. It was the shortest stay I’ve ever had in Las Vegas: 45 minutes, just long enough for fuel and windshield de-bugging and a stop at the last In’N’Out Burger I knew I’d see for the next couple of weeks.

(There were three previous visits of less than three hours and one of less than six, so beating the previous record did in fact take some doing. It was only possible by staying away from my four favorite vices in Las Vegas: driving down the strip looking at all the lights, which takes forever; $5.99 prime rib at the Main Street Station casino; dollar blackjack at the Sahara, and a particular upscale gentleman’s club, as they like to call it there. While I don’t want this to sound like the “Playboy for the articles” defense — it’s a very adult Disneyland at best — but if you alternate feeling good with paying attention, you can learn more in three hours in a strip club than you can in a whole semester of a sociology class. If you write anything seedy or noir-ish, I highly recommend it.)

I pressed on through a sliver of Arizona and the Virgin River gorge, so narrow at times there was no place for the road but on stilts over the riverbed. North through Utah, past signs for Zion this and that.

Near 3:30 in the morning I wandered the aisles of a truck stop in Provo, asking the girl behind the counter which price hot dogs were on the little spinning heater, as I had only two relative sizes to match up to three items on the price schedule. I ended up with a mustarded pair of the two for 99 cents size and went to pay with an old Susan B. Anthony dollar. The trucker who was either friends with the clerk or trading flirts because it was late and there’s nothing else to do, I couldn’t tell, moved to the side for a moment.

“The smaller ones won, huh?”

“Well, I voted for them, and I was the only registered voter in this district.”

“Had to make it anony– uney– unanimous, huh?” (A note from a year later: some folks think I am making fun of this girl. Not at all. I, for one, am a verbal chicken; I’ll use three or four smaller words if I’m not sure about one better big word. So, power to her. I’m just quotin’ here.)

I nodded and slid over the overgrown quarter.

“Awww, what am I supposed to do with this?”

“I can give you a new one if you want.” I’ve got a pocket full of the new gold dollar coins; I intend to spread them across a number of states for obscure emotional reasons I don’t pretend to understand.

“No, that’s okay; I’ve already got one of those. You have to take care of them — look at this one.”

She pulled one of the new dollars out of the register and held it up to a new one from my pocket. The spent one looks well spent — the rim badly scuffed on both sides, as though it had already been around the world twice and used for something unmoneylike, like propping up a table. I wished the dollar had a passport I could examine.

“Either one of you know how far Boise is?” I said, turning in anticipation to the trucker. Sure enough:

“Six hours, maybe 390 miles. You in a car? Then five hours. Although I’ve been listening to the weather scanner, and there’s some ice on the road near Snow Home.” I think that’s the name of the town, Snow Something at least. Ice? In mid-May? Drat. I’m not really interested in stopping.

“Moving up there?” said the girl behind the counter.

“No, going to visit a friend who called and said visit me, so I am. I left LA about twelve hours ago and I wanted to go straight through.”

A flash of the “that’s so sweet” look on her face, then worry. She gestures to the trucker. “If he’s not allowed to drive that much in a day, what makes you think you can?”

I didn’t tell her I’d done it before, slightly further, 1100 miles to today’s planned 1050, from the small Texas town my father grew up in all the way back to Los Angeles. That was running from a past I couldn’t handle any more that day, racing home to embrace the familiar. As I went, the push behind me lessened with distance and I was probably tired past the point of safety by the time I arrived home. Today, I wasn’t pushed but pulled; pulled to see my friend, to see somewhere new, to look for a new home. Stopping sounded awful; I imagined tossing and turning in my car or in a room, unable to sleep because the future was looming so bright in front of me.

“It’s not illegal for me, just maybe not smart. Actually, I’m thinking of moving to Eugene, and this is just a detour.”

“Eugene?” said the driver. “Better bring a raincoat.”

“That’s what I hear. I’m looking for that. I miss rain; it’s always sunny in LA and it gets boring.”

Both people and both hot dogs gave me a “you’re full of shit” look. I amended:

“Well, I grew up somewhere with real weather and real trees and I miss it. LA has neither.”

They bought this, relaxed. The trucker shook his head.

“Well, Eugene has great trees. But you’d better have webbed feet, like a duck. It always rains there.”

“I’ve spent some time in Seattle and I’m okay with that, and I hear the weather is pretty similar.” I neglect to mention that I’ve been really lucky with Seattle weather, rained on maybe twice in an accumulated month or so of visits.

“Well, yeah, pretty similar.”

More concern from behind the counter. “Good luck.”

I smiled, and didn’t ask if it was for Eugene or that ice near Snow Something, choosing to apply it to everything. I ate the hot dogs in the parking lot, the air a refreshingly crisp contrast to the desert warmth I live in. The moon wasn’t quite full but was very bright. I decided to press on.

Infrastructure improvements for the impending Winter Games had me on a 18 mile surface street detour with bad signage. Salt Lake City at 4am has a lot of police, either because it’s the safest place ever or the most dangerous. I saw three officers from two jurisdictions arresting an older American Indian and decided maybe it was just a police state, at least at that hour. I was glad I’d been in SLC just two months before, because I was able to find my way back to the freeway when the signage let me down. Although I doubt you can be arrested for asking directions.

The ice patch that worried me so wasn’t there, and I put on repeat a reasonably hypnotic obscure Moby B-side called “Memory Gospel” as I passed near-endless nothing. Next services 60 miles. Ranch Exit and Farm Road led to gravel that led to nothing at all – no cattle or buildings or grain or corn or anything. There were no cars, no lights. Just grass and land and a ribbon of road. The moon turned yellow, then orange, then blood red as it set to my left. A bit later the near-trance of the music went well with the first tinge of blue in the sky on my right, as a jagged line of mountains started to crack away from the night. I pressed my elbow against the door and my hand against my head and I could feel the purr of the engine in my bones, comforting and warm like I had a contented cat napping on my chest.

The world was awake by the time I reached the city, but for a hundred miles of those thousand I was alone with the purr and the crack in the sky letting dawn blue erase the night, living between the spaces in something called Memory Gospel. At home, I dream of the open road. On the road, I dream of home. Perhaps, for me, they are the same.

So I find myself now sitting in a relative’s house in Boise, on the cliff edge of an old lava flow that surrounds the city, putting it down in a valley beneath me. A few yards off the back balcony, the ruts of an old wagon trail — part of the Oregon trail — are still visible when the light is low. The house is full of wood and vaulted angles and skylights, and while not my home, feels homey. I’ve been dreaming of rain and I didn’t need to wait for Eugene; a storm came over while I wrote this, swirling in stops and starts, showing a moment of power and backing off, thunder rumbling from all sides. The sky over this valley is much larger than the sky over the valley I live in back in California, and I could see the dark storm and brushed steel sky of not-storm and a far away sun trying to burn a hole through it all. The view and all the skylights and the storm make me feel more like I’m in touch with the world than I usually am surrounded by all the concrete in Los Angeles, and I realize this is the day to day, sitting still version of the sense of home I felt for those one hundred miles of dawn a few days ago. I have now a better idea what I’m looking for in the world. Perhaps I will find it in Eugene.

A few minutes ago a man from the Census rang the doorbell; it seems my relatives here neglected to be counted. He held out his ID and the privacy notice about the data collected.

“I’m the only one home, and I don’t live here.”

“So where do you live?”

All I could do for a moment was smile.


This was published on 16 May 2000.
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