As well as renting a room and having a job again, I now have a car to move me between the two and that means I might survive the winter after all.

Operating the car is effortless, like a kind of teleportation. Softly depress a featherlight pedal and gravity shifts as the light of the world flickers and changes; momentarily, lightning-quick I move from point A to point B without really occupying the space in between, without feeling wind or heat, smelling nothing and feeling nothing except the dull stagnant air inside the car-pod. Shifting is eerily easy, just a casual rearrangement of certain items in the cockpit, and driving is just a set of ritualized, abstract motions that I repeatedly perform inside the car to facilitate this voodoo travel. But ease is comforting and not always bad.

Time flits by again; my daily routine is as dull and invisible as it was before. I read, watch TV, play video games.

I thought it would be harder to find places to sleep on the trip, especially since I had to find places where I could safely hide the bike, but it was never a problem and always getting easier. At night we live inside narrow corridors of light, our world suddenly collapsed to a web of illuminated scratches on the dark globe — take literally just a couple steps outside that illumination and you disappear. Night after night I threw down my sleeping pad just a few yards from the road, still surrounded by the roar of traffic but safe because I was invisible, gone off the map. I was never disturbed because no one ever stepped outside the light to stumbled over me.

Before this trip I would have scoffed at the idea of traveling with a computer- simplify, right? But not only did this little laptop facilitate cheap convenient bulk communication, it formed the glowing heart of a body of words in which I so often dwelt. On the many mornings when I woke and it was too cold to ride but also too cold to sit around for hours until the sun rose high, I’d ride to the next fast-food spot, buy a coffee (and maybe a sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuit) and plug in. When the flipped-open screen filled with light a capsule of words rose up around me and I was gone, warm coffee clenched in quaking hand –gone and happy. You can do the same with a piece of paper, of course, it’s one of our oldest and best gifts — strike the stone and words spring up- but there are times when electrically-powered words are comforting. Bang on the table and up it springs, a symbol-encoded world like the one Neo saw in The Matrix when he at last perceived the green streaming code behind reality — not an escape from the world but a version of it, a lens, a watery bubble in which I spent hour after hour.

It’s not just the car that’s easy; there’s a sense of ease running through everything. It was stronger in the first few days, but it lingers still. My internal organs feel loose, slippery and good, as if freshly oiled or more efficiently configured.

There is something inside me. I used to think it was a hollow chamber, a large cavity rife with perfect sound, booming and ululating, but sometimes it moves. Sometimes it moves, powerfully, gently, shifting, sliding, convulsing, as smoothly as a magnetic field reversing, sad, ecstatic, music-like. Sometimes I almost choke and stumble — there are feelings for which we have no names. Now I wonder if it might be some kind of heavy compass, swinging- what really drives us, when we finally act?

My soul is made of lands.


I-10, I-20, I-85, I-95, home: October 26- November 6, about 3,500 miles.

Keeping it steady at 60, my odometer becomes a clock. In states where the interstate exits are numbered by their mileage, time, distance, and fast food all become interchangeable, just different manifestations of the same quantity; high on their slender stalks the colorful signs for restaurant and gas station chains are like giant flowers or minutes.

Again and again I don’t realize how cold I am until I get off the bike to refuel and start shaking and can’t stop for ten minutes, twenty, half an hour. When I’m riding I don’t notice because I slip into a cold torpor, the blood supply to my limbs silently restricted to maintain the temperature of my central organs while all of me goes just numb enough to not notice; my hands become unresponsive claws and my legs become weak as a child’s and I don’t even notice until I try to clutch, brake, stop and stand. I wobble and lurch into the bathroom to hold my hands under the faucet. The lights and colors are disorienting and my brain feels sluggish. The hot water sears me like sunlight on a vampire, not because it’s too hot but because my hands are too cold.

Once the pain goes away the warmth feels like liquid joy seeping into my hands, like life animating dead tissue, like happiness running into my lonely blood. I think, desperately: if I could curl up in this handful of hot water, that could be home. I could be home now. I could live out the rest of my days happy and warm in a truckstop bathroom sink.

Haunting me is the knowledge that I’m still only in Texas, still as far south as I can be, and I’m so damn cold. I haven’t even turned north yet, and when I do it’ll only get a thousand miles worse. Lying on the grass at a rest area in east Texas and trying to warm up in the thin sunlight I think long and hard about selling the bike; sell the bike and buy a bus ticket home. Yeah.

But I don’t. When I cross out of Texas and into Louisiana I feel much better; Texas is just a hard state to cross, too big. I enjoy a psychological boost- although a mile is a mile no matter what state I’m in, after spending two nights in Texas I now cross a couple states a day and it feels great. I feel like I’m in the East now, closer to home than not.

I see my grey face in the restroom mirror. I wash it almost every time I stop, but every day it gets a little greyer. Maybe this is my natural coloration now. Finally I realize that the grime isn’t washing off because the dark, oily patina isn’t water soluble. I spend 10 minutes in hard scrub and get my face back.

Stranger still, I look closely at my eyes and see foam. My eyes sting, they sting even when I stop riding and they still sting the next day, and along the edge of my eyelid is a thin line of white foam. It’s not normal eye junk, it looks more like the froth made by waves against a lakeshore; from constant irritation by the wind, maybe, but I can’t just stop.

The universe is a place of cruel but beautiful balance. The colder it is, the harder it is to start my bike and the longer I have to spend pushing it up and down hills, the hotter I get from the exertion. If it’s dropped below freezing when I wake up, then I spend a half hour or 45 minutes struggling behind a cold lump of iron on two worn rubber wheels until I’m gasping, soaked in sweat, and sweltering under my layers when the engine roars good morning. But I never doubt that it will start. It always starts. It may be the greatest bike ever made. Blasting down the onramp I smile ecstatically as the sweat freezes to my body.

I forget who I am from moment to moment. Without the constant reinforcement of social interaction, without being told who I am by those around me, I start to dissolve. I’d like to say I have a strong identity wired to a solid, tempered center, but the truth is I’m a loosely associated set of reactions. On the interstate I’m isolated from both people and land and become little more than a ghost hunched over in forward flight.

The ride up the east coast is a short few days,and the last day is a short ride, only a couple hundred miles across New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts on a warm and beautiful day. It’s barely dark and barely cold when I roll back into Manchester 13,758 miles after I left it.

Weatherford, Texas (mid-continent)

Along I-10 east of L.A. were acres and acres of windmills filling the fields and lining the ridges; they were different sizes but all were white with three slender blades whirling slowly like diatoms turning in the surf. In Arizona, south of I-8, F-16’s played low over the desert, dazzlingly fast and viciously nimble. Across the length of West Texas oil derricks bobbed beside I-20, rising and falling in slow prayer.

The Sonoran Desert reaches tentatively up out of Mexico into the southwest corner of Arizona, where it is mostly encompassed and protected within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. I spent one night there.

It was everything I, as someone from New Hampshire, imagined a desert should be. It was larger than life, a Technicolor cartoon desert of bright red mountains and and huge green cacti; the plants were so strange, vivid and numerous that the red hills seemed lush even while they parched and baked in the heat. It was cactus Disneyworld.

The saguaro is cactus prime, the ur-cactus, the ideal cactus of our collective imagination, that giant green pole with one or two fat arms that has become the icon for cactus. It’s the cactus that appears on every sign for every Mexican restaurant in the world and the Sonoran is thick with them, although in real life they don’t wear sombreros. They’re 10 or 20 feet high and stretch out in all directions like trees without branches, a forest of odd green trunks that dominates the landscape.

The organ pipe cactus is a dense cluster of vertical spires or fingers 10 or 15 feet high. The individual fingers are about half as thick as a saguaro trunk but the cactus as a whole is just as green and striking. Each one is a big fat bunch of green organ pipes, a whole handful of cactus, all the cactus you could want. I didn’t see too many from the main road but from the dirt road that ran out to the mountains I could see them everywhere, their gothic silhouettes crowding the hills.

The creosote bush was omnipresent but barely there, like a wispy olive-colored mist. They’re like sketches of bushes, just collections of twigs so sparsely dusted with dark green they look leafless. They’re actually covered with leaves but the leaves are so tiny, just a few millimeters long, that they’re almost like stubby evergreen needles. The branches break easily and seem almost dry inside, as if they’re barely alive, or as if the bush feels no need to struggle because it has some other secret strategy. Crush the leaves and the sweetest smell in the world billows out, a sweet, tangy tar smell, a passionate smell in the desert.

There were two kinds of short cholla cacti. The chainfruit cholla looks like a miniature cactus version of a tree just a few feet high that lowers its linked fruit from its branches in spiny braids. The teddybear cholla is even shorter and spinier, a lumpy mass of golden-needled paws.

There were prickly pear, although I didn’t see any of their spiny purple fruit. There were ocotillo there, too, still fascinating. They only grow leaves after a rain, the rest of the time they’re just slender barbed whips clawing the sky. People break off the 15-foot strands and make fences out of them. In the wild they look like the skeletons of murdered plants.

I rode the 20 mile dirt loop out to the Ajo Mountains at dawn. At one point when I stopped I heard rocks clattering on a hill and looked up to see what looked like a tiny wild pig scrambling between the plants. It was short and dark, only a foot and a half long, and then I saw others. They were javelinas and there was a herd of about a dozen of them moving over the hill. They walked in single file and it was strange to watch, strange to see such clear herd behavior in such small animals, as if they were guinea pigs pretending to be buffalo.

As I rode I watched great swaths of the red, green and gold desert illuminate.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The desert hates me, but I don’t take it personally because it hates everybody, and like the best disfunctional relationships the more times it tries to kill me the more I love it. I’ve been in desert land for the last few days, since San Francisco when I first saw palm trees and heard loud flocks of chirping birds that sounded like Florida. The desert hills have been beautiful, golden and shimmering, sometimes even a soft buttery yellow, but when I lay out my sleeping pad on the soft-looking grasses the stalks shatter and skewer the foam like knives.

On the edge of the Mojave, the Joshua trees are powerful evidence of Martian biological influence on Earth. Each one rises out of the ground like a twisted and broken hand, knuckles warped and bent back on themselves, each fingertip tufted with green spears. Within the park there are long flat plains of Joshua tree forest that are as strange to my idea of a forest as the redwood forest was, but in the opposite direction. The Joshua tree forest is mostly open space, the trees only 10 or 20 feet high but usually 50 or 100 feet apart. Viewed from the ground it looks more like an army of aliens camped on the plain than a forest, and viewed from above the forest disappears and looks like nothing more than a scattering of broken branches.

Up close the trees seem to be constructed entirely of spines, green spines for leaves and dry brown spines plastered against the branches and trunk, each one hard and sharp enough to run though someone’s heart. It’s as if the Joshua trees were made of papier-mache, except with spines substituted for the papier.

But everything is like that here — all the arms and armor discarded by the rest of the world has been assembled here in the desert, every last tiny barb and plate, and life breathed into it for eternal battle. I carry with me only one tool with blades of metal and although all I do is walk among plants I feel like I’m naked on a battlefield.

To my amazement, I saw three coyotes trotting along the side of the road within a few miles of each other. I’d never seen one so closely before and was surprised at how small they were, so short-legged and bushy that I thought they might be foxes. All of my amazement faded when the ranger explained that they lurk by the road so they can beg from cars because people feed them. Sure enough I came up behind a stopped car with a coyote trotting casually from window to window, peering upward hopefully. My motorcycle had not elicited this reaction. Later I came over a small rise and almost hit one sitting in the middle of my lane begging from a car going the other way; from that point on I honked at them when I saw them.

It’s not the coyotes’ fault, and it’s not even such a terrible thing. It does give people a chance to see coyotes, and it’s only natural that the world around us adapts to our presence. But we are such an environmental juggernaut, such a vast and thoughtless force at loose on the face of the Earth that I do hunger to see things at least somewhat free of our influence, to glimpse what the world might look like freed from our heavy thumb. Seeing plants and animals that have not just been influenced by us but have been transformed into hangers-on that exist at our whim like cats and dogs is to me more like looking into a mirror than going outside.

I also saw a wild tarantula crossing the road, four giant inches of brown hairy spider which presumably had less luck mooching off the park visitors (“C’mon, dear, let him bite your hand, it’ll make a great picture!”). This exciting sighting inspired me to spend the night sleeping high up on a rock.

The rocks around the Jumbo Rocks campground were both jumbo and jumbled, huge smooth pieces of something called monzogranite that looked like granite in peachy-tan fleshtones. It provided the landscape with the soft biological curves that the plants did not, the sprawling boulders and outcroppings resembling half-buried body parts, giant hips and knees and skulls. Because the gravel between the rocks was crumbled from the rocks themselves the color was identical and sometimes I couldn’t tell what was a soft mound of gravel and what was a hard arc of solid monzogranite, so seemlessly did they blend together. The rocks were as smoothly sculpted as sandstone, but unlike river-worn sandstone their shapes were mostly formed while still underground. Apparently groundwater seeping through cracks dissolved the stone while still buried so that as the soil washed away, the gently curved towers and piles emerged almost fully formed as though liveborn from a dirt womb.

At dawn I woke up to a bunch of coyotes yelling right in the campground, then came down from my rock to find rabbits hopping across the parking lot and around the picnic tables.

As I rode south out of the park I descended a thousand feet and left the Joshua trees behind. I passed through bands of other bizzarre desert plants, first the cholla cacti that were fuzzy and golden with needles, then the strange ocotillo that looked like giant patches of seaweed waving on the ocean floor. The ocotillo were 10 and 15 feet high and grew in spindly, leafless tufts, just thin barbed strands rising into the air seemingly far too high to support their own weight.

Just outside the park I spent most of the last dollar of the 751 on a cup of coffee (the Other Fuel). It’s been a good run, just over 10,000 miles. Discounting the single night in Quebec that I paid for lodging, the money was split evenly between gas and food over the course of 77 days, but a lot of that longevity owes to motionless days (when there was no gas expense) and more importantly to the people I stayed with along the way who fed me.

I made enough money drawing houses in Portland to continue for a little longer, though, and maybe even enough to make it home.

Taft, California

South of San Francisco, California State Highway 1 clings to the edge of the continent halfway between the ocean and the sky. I think I heard that on a Visa commercial once, but it’s true, it’s an incredible road. The air is tropical, the ocean beautiful and the land looks like pictures I’ve seen of Hawaii.

From one overlook I saw otters rolling in the seaweed, but by the time I scrambled down the cliff to get a closer view they were gone. From several places I could hear sea lions barking but couldn’t see them, even though their baying chorus filled the ravines and coves. Finally I saw one for just a moment, a tiny thing that looked like a rock wriggling in the sun — I hadn’t realized how high up I was. If they listen long enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rocks learn to make the sea lion barking sound all by themselves.

There was a haze or fog on the horizon so there was no horizon, just a progression from ocean to cloud to sky. Late in the day the sun lit it so it glowed, ignited it into a blaze of white fire on the ocean that looked like Heaven. There were shapes in the cloudbank, contours, textures barely discernible in the fiery mist, either cloud-shapes or inaccessible lands to the west.

In the morning the road rose up above the fog so I could see the light slowly spilling down out of the mountains into the roiling mists below me, into the vast churning cauldron of the Pacific.

I thought the best road sign I’d seen was the one in Utah that proclaimed “HOME OF FOSSILIZED SQUID,” but this one’s hard to beat:


Population          562
Ft above sea level          2150
Established          1951
Total          4663

Both signs pale next to “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” a radio program I found in my headphones last night on which a man pretending to be Thomas Jefferson discusses current events and talks with callers. Last night’s show was about the upcoming online auction of a woolly mammoth skeleton, with a brief aside about health care. Next week Mr. Jefferson will discuss the nuclear arms test ban treaty. It actually wasn’t a bad show, but it’s such a weird premise. The show is produced in Nevada.

From there I spun the dial on my radio past a lot of Spanish until I found Metallica’s cover of the old ballad “Whiskey in the Jar,” which you’ve gotta admit rocks pretty hard.

If you don’t learn how to work on engines and machines as a kid or a teenager, you spend the rest of your life just trying to catch up, like me.

The bike hasn’t been starting well with the electric starter when the engine’s cold. Once it catches it runs great, but the other morning after I’d drained the battery I spent an hour rolling it up and down a hill trying to jump start it — I think I’d flooded it by that point too. Now I camp only on top of big hills.

I can’t complain, though, because other than that one time it actually jump starts very easily, so easily that I can’t imagine what’s wrong with it. Yesterday I jumped it within the length of a slightly slanted parking space, push-push-pop the clutch-VROOM-clutch in-BRAKE, all before I hit the curb. This tells me that all it really needs is a kick starter.

This morning the carburetor was dumping gas on the pavement. Fortunately that’s a problem I’ve seen before, a stuck float valve, so I attacked it before breakfast: took off the gas tank, pulled back the air filter, unscrewed the throttle cable, loosened the intake manifolds, wrenched the carburetor off, pulled off the bottom and wiggled the the little floater up and down. It seemed to be moving fine so I figured it must have been just barely stuck and put everything back together again, jumped the bike and watched a fresh trail of gasoline spatter onto the parking lot behind me. I made a roaring sound and had some breakfast.

Proceeding according to the sound mechanical principle that it still HAD to be a stuck float valve because that’s the only thing in the carburetor that I know how to fix, I did it again, this time more slowly and after investing in a little can of WD-40 which I should have had on hand in the first place. After spraying everything in sight with WD-40 and then reassembling, the carburetor stopped dumping gas and the bike again ran great.

At that point I figured that since I was already there in the parking lot of the Big K I might as well change my oil, too, so I spent 10 minutes yanking pointlessly at the drain plug before I remembered that the drain plug has been stuck all summer. I unscrewed the oil filter and got out as much oil as I could that way.

To celebrate, I bought some socks and cut my toenails.

The Avenue of the Giants, California

The redwoods are grey; they might be as red as blood on the inside, but on the outside they’re a bright, vibrant grey. It’s as if after soaking in the fog for thousands of years they’ve taken it into their bark, protective coloration for hiding in mid-air. I don’t know what they might be hiding from, but if it scares redwoods it scares me.

There’s no telling what might be in the fog. I was going to ride down the Oregon coast, but when I got there it was gone, eaten away by fog. The sun, too, had been devoured; shaking with damp and cold I headed inland to where it was beautiful and warm. I tried for the coast again in California but with the same results, dark wet dusk at noon. I skulked inland, watching thick white tendrils writhe blindly across the pavement.

The redwood forests were Atlas’ secret project so he could release the sky and go home without Heaven and Earth colliding. The grey trunks rise evenly upward, vast, columnar, and spire-like, mighty with grace. They’re 5, 10, and 20 feet thick, 300 feet tall, 2000 years old; the massive, shaggy bark is thickly fluted and rises skyward in slow spirals. Walking between the trunks has the feel of passing through architecture, although each trunk has the beauty and presence of sculpture. The ground beneath them is open or covered with giant ferns.

The rivers are open too, with wide grey gravel flats. Ravens float along these corridors, filling the mists with prehistoric croaking calls. The whole place is a time capsule from an age when everything was dinosaur-sized; the redwoods once spanned the whole continent when the climate was more humid , but now they huddle in a thin strip along this coast where the fog helps mimic the moisture of that ancient climate.

The Avenue of the Giants is just a road, but it’s a road on which I feel like I’m riding a tiny toy motorcycle surrounded by matchbox cars. It’s a modest, quiet road anyway, but as it winds delicately between and around treetrunks a lane or two wide it feels like little more than a paved path on the forest floor. The treetops are so high up and far away that I have to stop to look up and see them, where they’re not invisible in the mist.

I thought I knew what trees were, but these are trees and yet they seem like something else entirely, things so big and glorious that I can neither see nor understand them all at once.

Twilight comes early along the Avenue, so I easily hide my motorcycle behind a tree and roll out my sleeping bag among the Giants’ toes.


I dreamed of flying, mostly when I was a kid, but the dreams were always strange. I didn’t fly headfirst and lying down like Superman or any of the other flying people, I flew upright as though standing, and never more than a few feet above the ground. Sometimes I’d have to flap my arms very fast, desperately fast just to attain that meager altitude and I’d always think, “Ofcourse it’s work, why would flying be easy?” Once I was airborne, though, I could coast and shoot over the ground at terrific speeds, floating up and down hills. When I’d wake up I’d wonder why my dreams always had to have some strange twist like flying upright, but within the dream I was oblivious and felt only the ecstatic joy and elation you’d expect to feel when you’d finally remembered how to fly.

My first motorcycle was a fluke. I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle and didn’t know anyone who had one. The only time I’d ever been on one was as a passenger for a mile or two and I hadn’t really liked it — I thought I was going to fall off. I’d always had a vague idea that I’d like to learn how to ride a motorcycle sometime before I died, but I’d always had a vague idea that I’d climb Everest before I died, too (until I read Into Thin Air); neither were burning desires. But when I saw a 1976 Honda CB 550 for sale at the end of my street for $250, I bought it and pushed it home. My main motivation was that I needed a vehicle and the motorcycle was cheap.

I went down and got my learner’s permit which, incredibly, made me road-legal for a month. I spent a couple days staring at the bike until I felt pretty sure I knew how the controls worked, then one quiet evening I went for a ride.

I rode for years before I realized that riding was the uncanny fulfillment of my own strange dreams of flight. Upright and arms outstretched I shoot through the air, just above the ground — I don’t usually have to flap my arms, but sometimes they get as tired as if I had. And riding often is work: pushing into a cold wind I’m propelled by equal parts gasoline and will. The ecstasy is there, too.

Beyond the point-by-point parallels, though, it just feels like flight to me. It feels like those old dreams. I don’t know why that should be.

Riding south through the hills along the Willamette River, I swoop and bank through the warm air of Indian Summer and count myself lucky.

Portland, Oregon

The power of suggestion is mighty: as I rode across Idaho I couldn’t shake the idea that everything was colored in shades of potato. Even the overcast sky seemed like the bright white inside of a potato. When I crossed into Oregon the spell broke and the high desert suddenly seemed golden, tawny and beautiful, the same colors but with better marketing. The banks of the Columbia were rippled and veined as though heavily muscled, and golden ridges ran down to the water like giant lions’ paws. The river lay like a dark blue ingot cradled in tan velvet.

Interstate 84 across Oregon was rife with produce. When an onion truck passed me, it smelled so sweet that I almost sped up to follow it; I’m glad I didn’t because for the next 100 miles there were onions all along the road so it must have been dropping them like bombs. I stopped and cut out a sweet slice to fend off scurvy. Then I started seeing corn that must have been thrown off by another truck and I managed to collect four ears with minimal highway burn. They made a great dinner.

I’ve been staying with a friend in Portland for many days now. It’s a great city and the weather has been wonderful, but it’s well past time I got going again.

Even if someone stole my last dollar, at least I could understand that they thought they needed it. Theft is what I’ve been worried about all along, always trying to judge where it was safe to leave things unguarded on the bike and where it was better to take some or everything off. I’ve made it without a problem so far only to have my mirrors smashed in a random and infuriating act of vandalism. One mirror was shattered and the other was broken right off the stalk. The bike was parked on the street but in a nice enough neighborhood, surrounded by new Beetles and Saabs, and it never even occurred to me that my little 20 year old Japanese motorcycle would be the target of someone’s pointless destructive impulse. At first I thought a car must have backed into it and knocked it over and that’s how the mirrors had broken, but no, there were no signs of it having fallen and no reason for both mirrors to be damaged. The only explanation was that someone had just pounded on the one and then the other (the missing mirror eventually turned up a block away, crushed flat from being driven over).

It’s really no big deal, they’re easily replaced and not very expensive, and my particular angels got hard to work and a few days later a friend of a friend actually found one extra motorcycle mirror in their basement that fit. It’s even better than the original because it has a longer stalk so it can better see around my shoulder. I can rig something up for the right-hand mirror. I still get angry when I think about it, though, it’s just the principle of it, it’s obvious from a glance at my old worn-out bike that whoever’s riding it probably doesn’t have much else; why kick somebody when they’re down? Who’d do that? It makes me want to kick back, and hard. The only thing that mitigates my frustration is that there are a lot of crazy people on the streets of Portland, mutterers, mumblers, and madmen, mostly homeless, and it might have been one of them. I reach for that explanation because it’s the only one that makes at least a little sense.

I rode out to the coast today. The state is a see-saw hinged on the Cascades, high desert to the east and wet green woods to the west; the western edge must be either pinned down by the ocean or weighted down by the giant trees. I stopped to look at a spruce tree that had a trunk at least 15 feet in diameter, bafflingly colossal, more like a wall than a tree. A lot of the trees don’t stop at having green needles but go on to have green trunks and branches too because they’re covered in thick moss. Along with the ferns carpeting the ground that makes everything green, a sculpture of a forest made out of astroturf.

I’ve touched salt water in three cardinal directions — to the east, north, and west of the continent. There are 32, 735 miles on my odometer, so I’ve come 8, 473 so far. I’ve been on the road for two months.

There are only 132 dollars left, which means the hour is growing late.

The Craters of the Moon, Idaho

This place looks nothing like the Moon, unless the Moon is made of blasted chunks of tar glued together by Dr. Seuss. When it was named that must have been the strangest place they could think of, but now we’re too familiar with the good old Moon, we’ve seen too many pictures and so must go farther out — this place could have been pulled down from dark Pluto or somewhere beyond the rim. The Craters of the Moon are 84 square miles of black madness.

There are signs of volcanism and heat in the earth all across southeastern Idaho. I stopped in the town of Soda Springs to see their “captive geyser,” which shoots 100 feet into the air every hour but comes out of a pipe stuck in the ground and is controlled by a timer; the heat and the pressure in the water, though, are natural. Then I passed a town with hot springs which I swung through just to make sure the springs were properly fenced off and controlled and there was a high enough admission being charged so I wouldn’t have to bother stopping- they were and there was. Just past Blackfoot I saw the first old lava beds along the road, instantly and startlingly recognizable as lava but pale with age as lichens, grasses and bushes coated, poked through and surrounded the broken pieces of flow. The lava beds are vast, stretching across the land and swallowing whole rivers: the Lost River flows into the lava and falls under it, disappearing from the face of the Earth for 120 miles until it resurfaces as a series of springs.

But at the Craters of the Moon the ground turns black. I passed through a wall of twisted black rock 20 feet high that rose up without warning like a goblin fortification. I didn’t believe it was natural — I thought it was rubble bulldozed into piles when they made the road, but the piles went on and on in a black sea of shattered debris. It was bulldozed thousands of years ago by flowing lava. The whole landscape looks like it just stopped smoking.

One expedition to the Craters of the Moon estimated that the volcanic activity that created the area occurred 150 years ago. That’s what any reasonable person would conclude; the lava looks brand-new, vivid, dark, and perfect, every ripple and fold looks fresh-cooled. There are some trees poking through, though, so 150 years seems just right to have allowed them some time to grow, but the most recent lava here is 2000 years old. In human terms that’s so very long ago it’s hard to believe, hard to imagine that the land has not bothered to recover in all this time, but in rock time the lava has just tumbled out of its dark bed in the earth and hasn’t even woken up yet. At North Crater time has been frozen stock-still and has not so much as ticked over in that 2000 years: the crater at first looks like a big bare black hill until you come around to where the side collapsed and burst outward from the weight of the lava within, and from there you can follow the arc of the flow around the hill and into the valley. The chunks of the crater wall were carried by the flow and now tower above the flat lava plain like monumental sculptures of forgotten mineral heroes. In the Devil’s Orchard are more such crater pieces.

Up close the lava does reveal colors: dark red-browns, orange-browns, chocolates and streaks of an oily blue sheen run through the brittle, airy rock. Whoever conceived of them in darkness had never actually seen colors, so understandably the best they could manage were these shades of black. Some of the pieces are as light as wood, pocked with bubbles, and make a high, glassy “chink” sound when dropped. Still trying to warm my hands from the cold ride, I read the signs and learn Hawaiian words to describe an Idaho landscape that looks like it fell from the stars. Pahoehoe (pa-hoy-hoy) is the smooth or ropey lava that was fluid until it stopped and cooled, while aa (ah-ah) is the lava of jagged broken chunks that looks like a fine-grain boulderfield but is really a kind of flow made as the crust cools, crumbles and is ground into pieces by its own motion while it is carried along by the still-molten lava beneath it. Much of the pahoehoe looks like burned dough, twisted, knotted, and billowing.

There are three spatter cones in a row like science fair volcanoes 50 feet high, formed by gurgling lava throwing globs of liquid rock up to form a rising ring around the opening. The middle one looks like a pile of skulls. There’s a path to the top from which I can look down its cold throat. Visible down inside the cone on the right is dirty snow, not from this year but left over from last winter.

Inferno Cone is a smooth cinder cone of fine particles like a giant rounded anthill. It looks like it’s dusted with tiny patches of snow which are actually small pale plants clinging to the gravel. The cone is deceptively massive and I can’t hear my motorcycle from the top, but I can see out across an ink-soaked landscape that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Every time I go to the supermarket, any supermarket anywhere, I stare dumbly at the same magazine covers in the checkout line: Cosmopolitan, TV Guide, Enquirer, Weekly World News. Presumably so does everybody else who has to eat, and as easily as that another brace of junky, useless information is casually transmitted throughout the culture. Strangers a thousand miles apart could recognize this month’s Cosmopolitan model and her outfit equally well, while in the middle of the continent there’s a giant patch of night tattooed on the Earth that sits silent and unconsidered.

Vernal, Utah

Dinosaur National Monument is a trifold wonder of which dinosaurs, incredibly, are only one part. The place encompasses the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers and spans 40 miles across Utah and Colorado.

In 1909 the paleontologist Earl Douglass found a set of eight Brontosaurus tailbones protruding from the top of a ridge here. The ridge was a 150 million year old memory of a river sticking sideways into the sky: the sandstone was once a riverbed in which many dinosaur carcasses collected in a tangled mass — the bones fossilized, the sand became stone, and the earth rose and tilted so the graveyard strata were angled steeply upward.

People quarried down into the hill and pulled out skeleton after skeleton of lost monsters, dragons that for millions of years had been remembered only by the rocks: Camarasaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Barosaurus, Brontosaurus. The names are incantations that I knew much better when I was eight and the world that is seemed so inadequate; I would’ve given anything to wish flesh back onto those bones. Now it seems like the past is a sleeping part of the present and maybe it’s enough that the mind-blowing dinosaur world is encoded within our own as memory and possibility.

They’ve set a building into the rock over what’s left of the fossil quarry, and what’s left is amazing. It’s a great cut of the hillside roofed over, a plane of stone 55 feet high and 200 feet long that shows a slice of what’s still in the earth. It’s a wall of humongous bones and rock rising at about a 60 degree angle; the bones are myriad but collected more densely in a band that passes from the upper left to the lower right like the Milky Way. There are dinosaur skulls and legbones and still-connected chains of vertebrae, twisted backbones and pieces of giant tails. There must have been a tremendous mangling of giant bodies to create such a wild constellation of bones on the wall — they didn’t just keel over and become buried, they were rotted through and torn apart and mashed together and even then still doomed to motion within the slow taffy-like currents of the rock itself.

Outside beneath the sky there are petroglyphs, old pictures chipped into the cliffs by the people who lived here 800 years ago. We can learn alot about these people from their art, such as that they had wide triangular shoulders, swollen square heads, and usually two horns although some had three horns, or floppy ears, or giant insect-like feelers. A few even had arms sticking out of their butts. Many had the power to spontaneously create small galaxy-shaped objects while others liked to touch large spikey balls. Another popular activity was shaking lizards and tiny people out of circles. Of their pottery we can say that it generally exploded. Also, some of them wore necklaces.

It’s hard to take the petroglyphs seriously. Although they have a strange beauty to them they seem so haphazard and disorganized that I automatically think of them as graffiti, which they aren’t. There’s real graffiti next to them, courtesy of modern visitors, and the modern efforts are feeble lazy scratches that barely show up, the crooked initials and scribbles of vandals, while the petroglyphs are chipped deeply and deliberately into the rock and are still clear and vivid after many centuries. In contrast, we’ll be lucky if in 800 years our cities are anything more than smudges of rust in the dirt.

They took a long time and alot of work to make so they must have meant something, but to me they’re inscrutable. If they’re organized I can’t see how, but maybe I am too much afflicted by rectilinear order. We are image-adept, image-savvy, living all our lives midstream in a wild torrent of millions of images that gush from television screens and float up off magazine pages and crash down on us from signs. Even text is a chain of letter-images that pour through us like frames of film generating an internal lightshow; it’s hard for me to stop and look deeply through a petroglyph that seems as simple and guileless as a single letter, a couple bent lines joined, a spiral. Complex image manipulation and interpretation are second nature to us, but maybe an image was a stranger thing to them, an exotic technology of thought fascinating enough to be locked in stone for a lifetime’s contemplation. Or perhaps they just had an aesthetic that’s strange to me, an aesthetic of jumbling and freewheeling geometry.

The third marvel is the ground itself; I cannot number or name all the things the land does here. A few hundred yards downstream from my campsite the Green River passes between walls of stone so twisted and curved they look like the inside of a thousand-foot ribcage hung to cure over the river, striated with red and white sandstone like meat and bone. Canyons come naturally, hallways between the earth and the sky where every day the two can meet in neutral territory and talk together in the language of light and shadow; to get to the campsite I rode 15 miles of dirt road, up and down through this land’s varying palette of colors and forms, cones and canyons and ridges buckled and folded, in pink and pale and a stubble of green. Back by the highway lies Split Mountain, a sprawling convolution of stone so torturously twisted and torn it looks like the two halves of a vast and swollen wound. When I first saw it I did such a doubletake I almost went off the road- what is the rock doing over there?! One side rust and bone and the other cream and rose, inflamed and gaping and beautiful, angel-flesh, a cut in God’s side.

I should’ve stayed, I knew it then as well as now, I should’ve stayed a week or a month or as long as it took. It was a perfect place and I should’ve just stopped and listened to the water and the bugs and floated down the river and walked up every canyon and touched every rock, should’ve tried to learn how to move that slowly and beautifully, but there’s not enough silence in me. I should’ve tried to soak some of it into me but I was too restless and not worthy.

As soon as I got back on the bike I felt better, less broken and sad. Maybe, like a wolf, the motorcycle has eaten my heart so that now I belong to it.