Trail Ridge Road passed through Rocky Mountain National Park from east to west and so did I. At its highest point the road was 12,183 feet above sea level which means that I’ve now ridden on two wheels higher than I’ve ever hiked.
The road was just a scratch in the rock, winding through the world’s teeth. Along both sides rose up slender poles 20 and 30 feet high to mark the road when the snow erases it; the buildings at the visitor center were similarly outlined. I looked down and saw a herd of elk a thousand feet below me- still two miles high, and they seemed at home. I wanted to spend a night up there somewhere since I’d never had the opportunity to sleep so close to space before, but the cold of a few nights ago and a mile below dissuaded me. I passed over the top and into the West, thinking that happiness is a fool’s game and the most we can hope for are alternations of solace and beauty.
It was drier as soon as I crossed over and looked more like desert: more bare earth, more scrubby brush.The dark mountains were marbled with bright bands of yellow as if there were fields of giant goldenrod on the slopes; there was even more of a show than on the eastern side. I think there was another dazzling yellow tree working in concert with the aspens, something taller and shaggier and willing to work at lower elevations. The road played tag with the headwaters of the Colorado River.
It took all day to leave the mountains since they tumbled the length of the state. I’m not sure when I left them, sometime after the sun was gone, but I know I spent the night on a dark plain under a bright moon.
In the morning, just outside the town of Dinosaur, there were pronghorn antelope in the road: first a buck with short dark horns, then three does a little farther on. They didn’t run so much as sproing. Just beyond Dinosaur lies Utah, as well as Dinosaur National Monument.
I spent a night and a day in Loveland because I was waiting for the weather to change before I went into the mountains; the day before the road had been closed due to snow. Loveland is just a sprawl-town, but from there the Rocky Mountains dominate the sky. I drew another house and the next day was beautiful and warm, and as the day wore on I saw some of the snow fade from the high peaks.
As soon as I left the suburbs the earth opened up with a silent thunderclap and I rode right up the throat of Big Thompson Canyon. To either side of me sprang up mighty sheets of jagged, spiny rock twisting their way to the sky. It was late in the day and dark at the bottom of the canyon where the road and river wound, but above me the rim was lit and glowing with needles of golden stone. I rode upward in shadow until I found a place to spend the night.
In the morning my bag, backpack and bike were covered with thick frost, a serious frost with many textures, leaves and fur and hard nodules, beautiful but discouraging. It was hours before the sun was high enough to fall down over the canyon walls and melt it off so I could continue up through the town of Estes Park and into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Once inside the national park it was as warm as summer and a gorgeous ride. While the snowy peaks rioted all around the horizon, the sun on the aspens painted dazzling streaks of yellow on the lower slopes. The aspens are like birches with platinum skin and their leaves have turned a brilliant canary yellow for the fall; gathered in shimmering groves amongst the dark spruces and pines they seemed to pour down the mountains and break over and around the angular evergreens like water over rocks. The slightest breeze made the leaves tremble and flutter so that from a distance the bright yellow patches scintillated, crawled with motion, pulsed with light.
Fall is yellow here. As I hiked up to Andrews Glacier I’d periodically enter an aspen grove and be bathed in glowing yellow light. I didn’t think a hundred shades of yellow and green could be so beautiful, but they are, an exotic foreign cousin of a New England fall that clearly carries the same royal blood.
At one of the lakes along the trail there was a Trout Parade: every ten feet along the shore I could see a rainbow trout swimming in the clear, shallow water, each between eight and ten inches long. It felt strange to actually see wild fish since they’re normally such a mystery, living in a hidden world until they appear miraculously on the ends of clear blue lines. They move by flying or levitating but seldom rise above the level of our feet; there was a medieval cult that believed it was ok to eat fish since fish did not have sex and were therefore holy, created and stocked by God — sounds good to me, I can’t picture fish having sex either. If they’re going to just swim around out in the open, thought, pretty soon they’ll be as mysterious as squirrels.
I almost didn’t find the glacier. When the trail opened up onto a field of huge jagged boulders I could see a great mass of snow hanging high on a slope to my left. I couldn’t see any other likely candidates, but fortunately a neuron fired somewhere and I scrambled up the steep talus slope to my right. When I pulled myself wheezing over the top a green glacial lake appeared before me and the glacier rose up behind it in all its vast white bulk. Unlike snow that sits on whatever’s available and mimics the forms beneath, Andrews Glacier had its own shape, its own massive curved body that slithered down between the slopes. In the middle it rose in a mighty hump, and over the water it stuck out a wide curved lip as though to take a sip. Why worry about alien invasion when there are glaciers in our very midst, unstoppable monsters who could rise up, multiply and grind everything to dust like they’ve already done so many times before? I walked on the glacier some to show it who was boss.
In the late afternoon sun the lower elevations of the park were all spun from ancient metals: copper, gold, bronze and tin in everything, in the many shades of the open grasslands, in the turning leaves and in the rocks. I expect autumn from the trees but in grass it is surprising, and I swear the tumbling outcroppings of mountain rock have taken fall colors too.
On one coppery grass plain were elk. One group was hidden in the distant trees but the other herd was right out in the middle by the stream, about a dozen elk presided over by a bull with a tall and glorious rack of antlers. Every few minutes he’d bugle, a high thin sound but with rich undertones as if he wasn’t getting it quite right. It did sound kind of like a bugle as blown ineptly by a small kid, but it managed to be beautiful sound anyway and carried all across the plain. Sometimes his call was answered by another unseen bull, probably from that other herd, but nothing seemed to come of it — either they saved it for another time or they resolved it with sound.
I’d met some great people hiking earlier, but when they turned back before we reached the glacier I was forced to choose between human companionship and a large piece of ice. I chose the ice without even blinking, which has got to say something about me — but to my good fortune we bumped into each other later and they took pity on me and bought me a beer and some pizza, a holy combination. Estes Park is overrun with animals: first we saw three deer standing on a streetcorner, then later we saw a whole herd running through the streets downtown, then later still a bull elk with a huge rack of antlers stepped out into our headlights right in front of us. We stopped in time but the car behind us got rear-ended; no one was hurt, though, and it was only a rental. Then we snuck into and prowled around the sprawling red-roofed Stanley Hotel where Stephen King lived when he wrote The Shining.
Right now there’s a wide, bright halo around the moon, a hoop or cold crown that dimly illuminates some of the high, thin clouds that pass through it. It signifies ice in the sky.
On my third day in the Badlands I woke inside a sleeping bag covered with frost; the weather’s one thing I can’t defy for long. I was up before the prairie dogs and walked through Prairie Dog Town without incident. When I came back through later all the little dogs popped up and down out of the ground shrieking at me with the natural music of a fieldfull of car alarms. Now I understand the inspiration for that game where the gophers pop out of holes in a table and you try to whack them with a mallet — it’s actually an old western fantasy.
From the hill I could see the buffalo running around. I get the impression that they enjoy being buffalo, unlike cows whose body language says to me, “I’m just a bag of meat. I’d rather be slit open now than walk another ten feet.” The low quaking call the buffalo make carries eerily, so even though it wasn’t loud I could hear it clearly from a half mile away. Some deer disappeared up the slope above me; a coyote ran up the gully below.
I spent all morning wandering through the grass. It was a great relief to walk through so much land just covered with wild grass, many different grasses of different heights and textures and colors flowing in the wind like hair. State after state after state I’ve ridden through land that’s worked so damn hard — we work every last inch, lash it down and harness it and make it work for us. Sure, we have to eat, have to raise food somewhere, but every last inch? Do we need corn EVERYWHERE? If it’s not corn, it’s wheat, if not wheat, then cows, if not cows then Wal-Marts. For at least the last thousand miles all the land I’ve ridden over has worn a mask.
Under the grass was clay, some white and some brown depending on the hill and height. The white clay yielded up smooth brown rocks as shiny as if they’d been lacquered and polished. The brown clay gave forth what looked like white quartz flowers in sizes from peas to potatoes, each rough with petal-like crystals packed against each other. Some had rose-colored crystals too, and some had rose and yellow and white; it took all my willpower not to pocket one. I only spent a few hours in the grass, drifting over the hilltops in the wind, but the wind made rippling streams and pools in the grass where time ran differently and I stumbled back to camp as tired as if I’d spent a whole day hiking.
The next day I rode through the Black Hills and past the giant heads of Rushmore and Crazy Horse. The land was beautiful and familiar, conifers-over-granite like northern New Hampshire, but this granite was whipped into high needles and fingers that rose out of the trees. The Black Hills used to rumble, but they stopped before anyone found out why.
Right at the entrance to Rushmore there were mountain goats in the road- ten in a ragged white goat-chain, the foremost almost to the woods while the hindmost was still just emerging… from the parking garage. They were utterly surprising to me since I’d never seen one before and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I might. They were gorgeous animals, bright white and fluffy and agile, showy ballet versions of regular goats. When I looked one right in the face, though, it looked like the Devil.
The Carhenge and Car Art Reserve sits in a field outside Alliance. If it was in South Dakota there’d be billboards advertising it the length of the state and once you got there they’d make you watch a movie about The Artist Jim Reinders; in Nebraska, though, it just sits there in all its whacked out glory- no admission, no gate, just a replica of Stonehenge made out of junk cars stuck end-up in the ground and painted grey. As if it just had to be made. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and run around the whole place grinning like a fool. There are some supplementary works of car art; while the spawning trout is awesome, most of the others are totally inscrutable, apparently just excuses to beat the crap out of a car and then stick it in the ground. The welcome board acknowledges that beer was a factor in Carhenge’s construction. On the other side of the board are a number of displays about the real Stonehenge, as if the two are interchangeable, or maybe you might forget which one you’re at. There’s a “comment box”, a mailbox with a little sign that says, “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going?” which gives me the impression that the Friends of Carhenge are lonely.
After enjoying some fantastic hospitality outside Minneapolis (dogsnot chili, natural margaritas, and refrigerator pickles, with mandolin music thrown in) I shot west across the Minnesota prairie, passing Paul Bunyan’s anchor along the way. Once in South Dakota I engaged in some crude thermal navigation- I was cold so I headed south the length of the state, and whether by luck or location the next day was warmer as I leaned west on 44.
When I passed through De Smet, South Dakota, I learned that it dubs itself “The Little Town on the Prairie” for being the site of one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood homes. Last summer I saw the Anne of Green Gables House on Prince Edward Island; maybe I’m actually on a lifelong tour of Famous Schoolgirl Heroines and don’t even know it.
The eastern end of the state was full of water. Everywhere were ponds and lakes in the grass that came right up to the road; fences ran down into them and dead trees rose up out of their middles. I asked if these were all recent human-made lakes and was told that they were just wet areas still flooded from the spring. They’re only a long day’s ride from all that dead corn.
At the Missouri River the land collapsed, fell like a cake, deflated like a silk balloon to hang crazily over the strange bones beneath. West from there the land stabilized somewhat, flattened and smoothed itself, but never really got it back together again; then at the Badlands it all came apart anyway and those bones spilled out into the air.
Coming from the southeast the Badlands first appears as a Wall of multicolored rock that rises up out of the grass. It runs for at least the 20 miles that the road follows along, and I don’t know how many more. The bands of color alternate between shades of coral and bone; up close, the Wall expands fractally into a maze of stone minarets, towers and cones, of vanes, ribbons and piers. It is breathtakingly beautiful and a great wonder.
I got up before dawn to ride through and watch the light affix to this thing; the land smelled like fall and looked like an undiscovered moon. Many of the spires rose up out of the prairie like icebergs calved from the slow rock to be carried away by grass currents and cold wind; others looked like the steeples of windowless cathedrals that you could only enter if you lived inside the ground. In some lights there was a blue-grey tint that pervaded, but in others the rock took on warm fleshtones. There were even a few patches of mustard-yellow rock that lent uncanny completion to the rainbow: green grasses, bright yellow and rose stone, then bone-grey, then blue prairie sky and puffy white clouds.
Closer still, the surface of the rock was not hard at all but wore a skin of cracked clay that crumbled when touched. It was disturbing to be reminded that such a vast piece of stone architecture is just a transient layer of beauty on the move, a frail mud-mask illusion of permanence. I could brush the whole of the Badlands away with my fingertips and a little time.
As I walked along one narrow ridge I stepped over holes in the ground, some half the diameter of a person, some the diameter of a person, some twice the diameter of a person, all lined up like fingerholes in a clay flute. Each opening was a chute plunging into the ground and out of sight, ten feet straight down at least but deeper than that I couldn’t see.
There’s something more about the Badlands; finally laying eyes on the Wall, I felt like I’d come home. That’s crazy, maybe just a reaction to the soothing nature of open spaces, or maybe a place as beautiful as this starts to short-circuit the brain and excite nonsensical emotions. I’ve felt that way once before, in the desert: another stone-world. Maybe I was a changeling-child after all, and being raised by dogs and people was not enough to mask the grind and throb of heavy rocks in the streambeds of my blood.
I swore I wouldn’t stop at Wall Drug, and since I’d skipped I-90 and hadn’t been brainwashed by several hundred miles of billboards I almost made it. But when I rode out of the Badlands I was frozen and the wind was a toppling wind, and Wall Drug was right there. I drank their 5 cent coffees all day and waited for the wind to change. It didn’t, so I scurried back to the Badlands. I try not to ride in wind that I have trouble walking in.
I had to face down a buffalo on the way to the campground. I wasn’t sure if the buffalo was going to yield; we stared at each other and both considered the fact that I was much smaller and not protected by the doors and windows of a car. It let me go, but around the next corner was a whole herd milling around in the road. At that point I learned that my motorcycle makes buffalo stampede; so far they always stampede away from me. I felt guilty at first, but since I can’t do anything about it I’ve come to regard it as good fun, and I think the buffalo enjoy running around.
The campground is in a hollow surrounded by open grassy hills and a stream cuts through the ground to one side. Three herds of between 20 and 80 buffalo drift within sight of the campground, surrounding it. Some, probably the bulls, stand apart from the herds and sometimes wander singly down between the campsites. My only anxiety is of being stepped on in the night.
It’s dark when the wind stops.
I can hear an owl, and the low rumbling the buffalo make that sounds like the earth quaking. Occasionally coyotes sound off. The sky is so huge and bright with stars that the handful of constellations that are familiar to me melt away, lost in the finer structures of light like tigers in the grass. With no tent I can watch the sky as easily as sleep, and staring idly up I see a dozen shooting stars.
There’s not a cloud or blemish on the sky except a low glow that washes out the stars along the northern horizon. I’m so used to light pollution that I assume the light is from the town to the north, but that town isn’t big enough for such a glow and this glow is throwing shifting spokes and spires of light into the sky. It’s the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis. I have only seen them once before and years ago.
They are ghostly and faint, their features flowing slowly and best seen by not looking directly at; now they’re a low arch, now more like a ribbon, now they’re high pillars of light marking one of the old roads to the Silver City. In their forms and configuration they look much like the Wall.
As I slide into my third hour hunched over the table at Burger King, I know what they’re thinking — the employees at the counter who keep glancing up at me, the lady cleaning tables who has to keep going around mine, the mothers who warn their children away: How did a homeless person get a laptop, and what the devil is he using it for?
A few days ago I went for a swim in the Wisconsin River and came out feeling plenty clean. I’ve been spoiled by a lifetime of long scalding showers and scouring soaps — no one really has to be that clean. I soaked my clothes in the river and then tied them to the milk crate on the back of my Kawasaki (washer/drier) and had the sense that I was finally getting the hang of this. It was a hot sunny day and I felt great.
I pulled over at a rest area in Bluff Siding, Wisconsin because my clutch suddenly had a lot of play in it, and I found that the cable was frayed through at the end and just hanging by two tiny strands of wire. I walked into town with my backpack on, my hands full and my saddlebags slung around my neck.
When I walked into The Refuge like this they asked me if I was moving in, so I told my story and asked if I could used their yellow pages to write down some numbers. It was Sunday night of Labor Day weekend so I was resigned to wait until Tuesday before anything opened and I could buy a new cable. It was quiet — of the five people there, one was the owner’s sister, one was the owner’s daughter, and one was the bartender. The bartender, Travis, was on the phone for 20 minutes before I realized what he was doing — calling everybody he knew to ask them if they had any old Kawasaki parts or knew anyone who did or anyone who might have an idea how to fix it. Most people were still away for Labor Day weekend so he had no luck. They let me camp out behind the bar.
The next morning Travis drove me all over town, first to make sure all the bike shops were really closed, then to check the hardware stores in case they might carry motorcycle clutch cables. I told him I’d need a bike shop and I’d just have to wait until Tuesday, but he insisted it was worth a look and he had nothing better to do. No luck, but on the way back he saw an old Caddy outside George’s Bar that he recognized so we went in and talked to Bud. Bud said, sure, he might have one in his shed, and told us to go on up and check it out — if it’d work, I could have it.
The Kawasaki in the shed was a tiny and ancient junker and one end of the cable was hidden behind the shifter housing so I couldn’t see if it was right. The screws in the housing were Hell to get off and we had to drill one of them out, and the cable inside wasn’t right after all.
But it was close. And it worked. Actually, it works great.
The total cost to me was two bucks for the beer. I offered to buy Travis breakfast but he refused. There are some good people out there.
From Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin and then back to Minnesota I rode north along the Mississippi. I followed signs for the Great River Road and it was a beautiful ride: high wooded hills and low green marshes, rundown river towns and long lumbering trains. I was only on it for about 150 miles but that tumbled across a couple days, and I was tempted to turn around and ride the river all the way to the gulf. But I wasn’t ready to head south yet — I’ll be forced to soon enough.
In a grassy area on the west bank I cooked up some dinner on my camp stove. Great blue herons, monarchs and seagulls floated by in the cool breeze, and someone nursed a sweet-smelling wood fire just down the shore. Grand old trees stretched above me as I watched the evening sunlight lift off the limestone cliffs on the far shore, which glowed as warmly as the marbles of the Parthenon in a rosy-fingered dawn.
As I lurked outside of Minneapolis yesterday I looked up through a drizzling rain and saw a spectacular double rainbow. The lower arch was vivid and complete, stretching from ground to sky to ground; the outer arch was much fainter and faded out in places, the order of its colors reversed. A moment later the wind kicked up and the tornado alarms started sounding, then the water just dumped out of the sky in waterfall. I happened to be inside when the wind booted my helmet off the seat where I’d left it so it landed upside down on the ground like a bowl. In the next few minutes it filled with two inches of water and cherry pit sized hailstones; my gloves, which I’d tucked inside the helmet to keep them dry, floated in a kind of cold glove soup.
I hadn’t seen a Dunkin Donuts for many days and was afraid I’d passed out of their range, but this morning I found spoor. At the rest area just inside Wisconsin there was a trash can with two styrofoam Dunkin Donuts coffee cups right on top of the pile. My heart leaped up but I rode all day and still didn’t see an actual DD; the rest area was on I-90 so it’s possible the cups weren’t fresh and had been carried from many states away. I don’t know what to attribute their absence to- I can’t blame it on the Waffle Houses anymore since they don’t seem to fare well this far north, but maybe the Dairy Queens have predatory tendencies that I’m unaware of.
Riding across southern Wisconsin I saw black and white road signs proclaiming things like “XX,” “CH,” “G,” and “Q.” Apparently the county roads are given letters instead of numbers — it’s as good a system as any, I suppose, but I still felt like I was in a Sesame Street skit.
The butterflies have started to change, so I know I’m not at home anymore. A week ago I stopped in the southeast corner of Indiana to investigate a stream and I found an abandoned arched stone bridge and a posse of big black butterflies. They looked like floppy bats as they moseyed around the brown slab stone streambed, and had a faint blue irridescence that became bright on the back wings — pipevine swallowtails, which I’ve never seen in New Hampshire. Along many highways and roads since then I’ve also seen small bright orange-yellow butterflies that I can’t identify.
The leaves have also started to change, but when I saw the first brown and yellow leaves in Kentucky I didn’t believe it. It seemed too early so I thought it must have been some strange Kentucky tree with odd habits, but since then I’ve seen the leaves starting to change colors across five states; it must be the drought. Fall in New Hampshire is one of the most beautiful things on Earth; I’ve only missed a couple in my life and it breaks my heart to think I might miss another.
I’ve seen two sets of sundogs so far: parhelia, smudges of rainbow colored light about a foot to either side of the sun (measured at arm’s length). Both were in the late afternoon, once in Ontario and once in Indiana; as I understand it they’re pieces of a halo formed by sunlight passing through ice crystals. There are signs and portents everywhere, but not all of them are clear to me.
Giant dirt bears are real, and they sleep on the banks of the upper Mississippi.
Someone formed mounds of earth here on top of the bluffs. Some are domes 20 feet wide, some are like dashes 100 feet long; some are bears and birds. The Great Bear mound is 137 feet long and some of the birds have wingspans of 100 feet. The domes can be 2500 years old while the animals have probably slept for only a millenium or so.
They’re low, rising only a foot or two or four above the ground. A swell a foot high spanning 100 feet would be imperceptible to me if it wasn’t cleared and the grass around it cut, but once I know what to look for the giant bears are undeniable, massive and subtle. Discerning them in the overgrown woods must have been like learning to see Magic Eye images, staring until patterns rose up out of the leaves. The mounds’ sublety makes them even more wondrous, not only because it means they weren’t really meant for us ground-dwellers to see but because it makes me wonder what else I’ve missed. If this normal-looking ground is actually swollen with images and symbols, what about all the other ground I’ve walked across? If I’m blind to these Godzilla-sized animal crackers, how blind am I? There could be equations etched in the White Mountains, musical notation inscribed in the stream-patterns of marshes, the name of the one true God written and erased in the dunes every hour, and I would never know.
They’ve found traces of old fires set in the bears’ heads and hearts, as in mine. The bears must have nearly come alive. They speculate that the fires might have been used as parts of funeral rites. Is that what you have to do after you die — face down a giant dirt bear and pass though his fiery mind?
At the visitor center the filmstrip teaches me that this was a transitional region between the prairie to the west and the hardwood forest to the east. But there is no hardwood forest to the east- I know because I’ve just ridden from there, for many hundreds of miles, and there’s nothing but the Corn Plain. I enjoyed that ride through the sweet-smelling farmland, but this lends it a sinister cast. There was once a vast and mighty forest and we eradicated it, and now the corn we put in its place is all brown anyway.
The Marching Bear Group is a few miles south of the others and it’s getting dark by the time I reach them. There are ten bears marching in a line, head to tail, with a couple birds at the ends. The grass around the bears has been mowed while the grass on the bears grows wild. The bears seem to be marching out of Harper’s Ferry; the birds are flying to the river.
Although it’s against the rules, I sleep between the bears, high on the grassy hill under the oaks and maples. I dream nothing and leave no trace.
It’s been a week since I had a shower or slept in a bed. That’s fine as long as you don’t need to cross back over and be a part of society again, but I did need to. My back tire was bald and I needed a new one; since I’d resolved not to take the money out of the 751, and there is no other money, I had to work for it. I’ve been doing pen-and -ink drawings of houses since Bowling Green, Kentucky and across the length of Indiana. As in: (knock-knock) “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you. I do pen-and-ink drawings and was wondering if you might be interested in one of your house. Here are some examples of others that I’ve done…” They’re a good size for getting made into greeting cards.
But it’s hard to be taken seriously if you’re greasy, stubbly, your hair’s gone mad and you stink. I can’t even take myself seriously when I stink, and attracting flies is demoralizing. I’ve done the best I could, (shampooing my hair with the antibacterial hand wash in the Mcdonald’s restroom, then hunkering down under the hot-air hand drier because the nozzle doesn’t swivel), and sometimes feel pretty clean, but it gets a little harder every day.
A few days ago in Bloomington, Indiana, I played make-believe. After a vigorous and refreshing shaving, scouring, and shampooing I walked around the Indiana University campus and pretended I was a real person who had a reason to be there. It was a beautiful day and the students were just coming back for the fall, so lots of people were just wandering around. I looked people in the eye, smiled, exchanged greetings and nobody flinched; I was careful that nothing about me said, “Last night I parked my motorcycle behind a piece of construction equipment and slept in the dirt next to it.”
Going door-to-door is gruesome — 99 out of 100 people just wish I wasn’t there. There’s a look in their eyes that tells me they’re not even going to consider anything I’m about to say; these are the same people who, if I was hitchhiking, would refuse to make eye contact and just shoot on by pretending I didn’t exist. Denied the luxury of just driving by, forced to face me, I can see them frantically scheming up an exit strategy, an excuse to get rid of me. Very few of them can simply say no, so instead they hunt for an excuse or justification. This is ridiculous because I make it very easy to say no to me since I don’t want to work for anyone who isn’t genuinely interested, but they’re so crippled by vague fears and suspicions that they can’t even hear me. There are only a handful of people who actually listen to what I say, then check inside their heads for a second to see if they really want a drawing, but they’re like rays of sunshine. After a long series of refusals all I really want is to be considered as another human being, even if they still say no.
But a little like hitchhiking, the few who say yes make it all worthwhile. They’re enthusiastic, thrilled by the idea, and happy with the result. It’s very satisfying to work for people like that, producing something that they want and then giving it to them directly. Drawing has been very satisfying work by itself, and even if they’re only houses I’ve been proud of every one. I hate to part with them so I make photocopies for myself.
I feel like a ghost floating through the strip malls and suburbs. It’s no place for a person with no job, no money, and no clean clothes. I should be out in the country, riding, but the suburbs are where the people live and the strips are where I can find clean tables in air-conditioned rooms to draw at. Finding a place to sleep is hardest here. My resolve broke down and I handed over $30 at a motel outside Indianapolis, but when I saw the room I turned right around, got my money back and kept riding; every surface was crawling with filth and the stink gave me a headache. The ground is so much cleaner, and free.
$30 was cheap. If you make minimum wage then a night’s lodging is at least a day’s wages, if not double or triple. That seems out of balance, since we all have to sleep. It’s not as though it’s a priviledge you want to work all day for- sleeping is a right. If you work at the Mcdonald’s on the interstate then you can’t afford to travel, only to serve those who do. And as far as I know, none of the chains do much better than $6 an hour, including Barnes & Noble.
I’ve spent the last four days haunting the same Mcdonald’s and Barnes & Noble (with cafe), drawing feverishly all day, working from Polaroids. The Mcdonald’s has a wall outlet I can plug into and read over my e-mail as a cheerful break, but the Barnes & Noble has a superior bathroom with fantastic paper towels. They’re white and soft like a kitchen roll, but tough as cloth like something I’d expect to find at a garage, something you can really scrub with. I have no qualms about imposing on Barnes & Noble since I’ve worked for that company for much of the past year, and I don’t feel too guilty about liberating a few cents of electricity from international megacorp Mcdonald’s (if I’m in an independent truckstop or cafe I always ask before plugging in and usually offer to pay for it). I have the sense of being in an economic landscape so rich that luxuries like hot water and electricity flow freely off the the mountainous megastores and fast-food chains. But no beds.
It is lonely. All around me are not just people, but interlocking webs of people who know each other, who work together or have friendships or romances. Everyday life flows along the strands of the web making it tremble and flutter. I pass right though it because I am just a one dimensional point, unconnected. I need solace and hope to find that in land, somewhere west.
They can say representational art is dead, but yesterday it bought me a new tire. I removed and reinstalled the wheel myself to save a few dollars. I did it methodically, by the manual, and it felt like a hot, grimy holy ritual as I removed and cleaned and re-greased each part, then slowly put it all back together again, tightening, adjusting, double-checking. That tire makes me very happy. I feel like I won it in battle.
It is September 3 and I am in Lafayette, Indiana. I’ll be here for about 5 more minutes. It’s taken me 4,190 miles to get here and there are 520 dollars remaining, but now I know I can make more if I have to.
Today I spent three hours under the earth, not even dead, and walked inside it for four miles; still I saw only a tiny fraction of the things I shouldn’t have seen.
Since mooching off my relatives in Ontario worked out so well, I decided to extend the theme and visit my aunt and her family here in Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. It was wonderful being a part of civilization, but I got soft — being indoors does that. Kind of like Superman, my powers start to fade if I’m not exposed to the sky. A few days ago I set out for Mammoth Cave, only a couple hundred miles away, but I left late, stopped at the mall, then got turned around on some back roads. I rode an hour down the highway and pulled over to take a nap; when I got up I decided what I really wanted was a root beer float so I bought ice cream and root beer and rode back to Villa Hills. It was pathetic.
I was caught in the gravitational well of the clean bed and the hot shower for a whole week and only left two days ago to finally head for the cave, but it was worth it: spending time with relatives and playing with the kids is at least as important as any trip. Eating their food is just a bonus.
Ohio and Indiana are covered with corn. Most of the fields are brown; staked at their edges are colorful signs with mouth-watering names like Pfister Hybrids 3321, Pioneer 33Y18 Elite, Southern Cross Jude 4.0, Croplan Genetics 6598, and AgriGold A6460. Corn is no longer grown by human beings.
Mammoth Cave has 350 miles of passages that they know about, and the pamphlet estimates there may be twice as many more yet undiscovered. I walked along only a few miles of these but it was still very strange to slip into the earth in one place and come out several miles away (Honey, we’re late — should we take Route 259 or the cave?); it isn’t just a cave, it’s a Way. Much of the tour was through grand corridors 15 feet high and 40 feet wide, gently curved — a pipe under the ground. Other segments were much taller and rougher like riverbed with a flat rock ceiling. We filed for several hundred yards through a subterranean slot canyon 3 feet wide and extravagantly curvaceous, a wildly rippling ribbon of air through stone. We rested and walked, rested and walked, as if we were on an epic journey and had to conserve our strength; I watched for Gollum and kept my hand near Sting (my Leatherman) in case the lights failed.
We weren’t the first. People began exploring the cave 4000 years ago by the light of reed torches, and made it not just a hundred yards or a half mile, but many miles under the ground. That’s staggering bravery, and I can only hope they found that passage to the other side that has so far eluded us.
Far underground, we found hidden things, wonders of the earth: a cafeteria, drinking fountains, restrooms.
Most of the passages we travelled through were dry, if haunted by water. Stalactite and stalagmite free, the mighty network of tunnels was cut by dark children of the Green River millions of years ago and then abandoned for deeper levels where they play still. There were white gypsum growths on the rough walls like flowers, tufts of hair, lichens, as if when rock dreams it dreams of life and then extrudes those dreams through a slow stone alchemy.
At the end we did come to a chamber called the Frozen Niagara which was full of the rock icicles and sheets of flowstone that are formed by slowly dripping, oozing water. Some appeared warm woody brown, some closer to white. Looking up at the ceiling was like looking up into the vanes of a madly twisted mushroom cap. I guess if rock is going to dream it’s not surprising if it dreams small dreams of things barely alive; fungus, for its part, seems nostalgic for stony sleep.
As the ranger said, we are creatures of light. Not only are we solar-powered, but our minds are like shuttered lanterns full of light. We have other senses but sight rules over them so that the world we perceive around us and the copy we keep in our heads are both full of pictures. To us, darkness is just the absence of light, like silence is the absence of sound, a temporary condition. But light in this cave is a little like sound in space — it’s just not one of the features. When we turn on the lights to walk through and look at the cave, what we’re looking at is something we invented; we might as well paint the cave blue from end to end because light is just as foreign and unnatural a pigment. We have to go down in our capsule of light, though, to make some sense of the place or else we could barely even tell that it existed, as the little fish and bugs that live down there would come up to the surface world in dark capsules of smell and sound-perception if they ever undertook that journey.
I spent the better part of three days on that road, la Route de la Baie James. It is too long. By the time you reach the end you’ve forgotten where you started, why you’re there, who you are. An hour can pass and not see a single vehicle. It’s not a real road — real roads have buildings on them, people, cities and towns. This is just an idea of a road, an archetype. The wind comes and goes, the rain comes and goes, the sun sets and rises and sets again and you ride and ride and ride.
The road does have a purpose, a destination which isn’t mine. To the east of the road’s northern terminus lie about 500 miles of hydroelectric reservoirs linked end to end to form an almost continuous body of water. According to my map this water feeds seven hydroelectric stations with names like La Grande 1, La Grande 2, La Grande 3. I have no trouble picturing how big this is: it’s equivalent to the length of the road I’ve just been on, plus several hours.
It rained on me as I edged south so I wore my secret lingerie of blue garbage bags. The most effective rain-defense system I have, they at best act like control rods in a reactor by controlling the rate at which I get wet. By the time I got south of Rouyn-Noranda and crossed over into Ontario it was so warm I didn’t even mind the rain, and I rode half the night just because I could.
I love riding at night. Free from the automobile cabin that blots out the sky and the ground and parcels the rest into dim rectangles, on the bike I can see everything. Lights falls off the bike in all directions; not only does the headlight throw enough extra light to cast a glow onto the bushes and trees beside me, but the tail light sprays red behind me. At the center of a sphere of light I fly through a dark world.
In the headlight’s beam I saw the giant dragonfly, like I always do. The old headlight doesn’t cast an even circle or cone of light but rather it projects a varied and intricate structure of light and dark across the world before me. On the road in front of me fall two irregular pools of light to form the head and thorax, then mighty rays of light spill sideways to the left and right to form the wings. The wings sweep 20 or 30 feet in either direction, right off the road and up into the trees; as the uneven night world flits by and the light dances across it, the wings seem to flutter. This isn’t a visual whim like a face in a cloud that might also be a camel or a flower — it really does look like a dragonfly. With the high beam it looks like a bigger dragonfly. Since the head, body and wings fly just ahead of me, that places the long tail directly under me as if I was astride.
Riding my giant dragonfly of light, I almost hit a skunk.
I was a little anxious about visiting my cousins in Guelph. I’d never met them, so even if we shared a smidge more DNA than most people we were still total strangers. Why should they put me up for the night?
They turned out to be some of the nicest and best people in the world and we spent all night in the backyard eating and talking. It was a wonderfully warm, soft night; the crabapples fell with an intermittent patter; the black cat, Evil Roy (a female), prowled. And I marveled at my luck, that even the farthest corners of my family are full of such good people.
James Bay is the thumb that Hudson Bay sticks down into the continent, and Chisasibi is as far north on the water as the road will take me. It’s plenty far enough.
I’ve never had to sign in to use a road before, especially a road 400 miles long, but I did for this one. Just north of Matagami was a gatehouse where they put my name, address, and telephone number into a computer so they could file a report if I never came back.
At about mile 50 north of the gatehouse I saw a monster of some kind. It appeared to be a very tall dog with the head of a cat, but it was far away and loped into the bushes before I could get a better look. It warms my heart to know that such fine medieval creatures still walk the earth.
It was 240 miles from Matagami to the next gas pump. I emptied my main tank twice, then my reserve, and still had to pour my little cannister of stove fuel into my tank to make it the last couple miles. There’s something unsettling about having to carry my own gas — it reminds me of a movie I saw once that took place in the future when there wasn’t any more gasoline for some reason except there was this guy with a Ferrari — maybe Burt Reynolds? — and he found another guy with a whole bunch of gas hidden away so they decided to drive the Ferrari to California where people still had gas and cars… but I don’t think I saw the rest of it, and I’m not sure I’m remembering this part right anyway. But I remember thinking, Geez, imagine having to bring your own gas with you wherever you went? It seemed so… well, apocalyptic. And then there’s that whole Road Warrior thing.
I spent the night close to the gas pump.
The trees here have heads — dense clusters of needles and cones at the top that bobble and wave in the wind. I feel like a mouse in a wheat field. The effect is even more striking when the trees are dead and there’s nothing left but a slender trunk with a dark snarl at the tip, and there are a lot of dead trees; in some places, mile after mile of them.
Around mile 350 the ground disappeared and was replaced by a dazzling lime-white foam: a vast carpet of bushy lichen about 3 inches thick. The woods were open and easy to walk through but eerie and surreal with such a bright, uniform mat beneath the trees. This alien landscape extended out of sight in all directions, poked through by occasional low bush blueberries and big anthills. Stranger still, the mat was precisely cut by dark lines 20 or 30 feet long — sometimes singly, sometimes forming X’s. The lines were geometrically straight, 3 or 4 inches wide, and through them showed the dark, bare earth. Close inspection revealed rotted wood in the dirt and usually the remains of a stump at one end; these were all that was left of trees that had fallen and decayed right into the ground. They must have been many years dead but the lichen still hadn’t regrown over where the trunks had been; maybe the lichen grows that slowly, or maybe it doesn’t grow on wood. The effect was that of shadows etched on walls by the Bomb, images etched into matter by things no longer there.
The bones of the Shield showed through more the farther north I rode, flat outcroppings of darkened, painstakingly weathered stone. The Canadian Shield is a great big hunk of geology, a massive plate of old hard rock that arcs around Hudson Bay and covers half of Canada, stretching all the way through Labrador in the east. It’s home to some of the world’s most ancient rocks — 3.8 billion years old — which still leaves whole empires and dynasties of previous rocks unaccounted for and probably lost forever. The Shield is so colossal that you can almost see it in a map of Canada, can almost discern its shape, intuit its presence as if it lurked just below the ink. And what is it really? What sort of shield straddles the Earth, cups a giant bay?
Chisasibi is a Cree town and it seems much larger and more interesting than the Hydro town of Radisson. At the moment, though, nobody’s home — they’ve all gone over to Fort George Island, where the town used to be, to celebrate the fact that in 1978 they moved the town to where it is now. I’m not sure what to think, except that they must have really hated living on that island.
James Bay looks like a bastard: brown, churning water and a cold wind. There are a couple dozen very serious looking boats pulled up on the rocky beach, long heavy outboards, Cree boats. This is a working beach. I have trouble getting a sense of where I am; I think I’m missing something.
Where do you go from here — to the north pole, or outer space? At the airport near Radisson I saw a big airplane with Air Inuit painted on the side. Maybe that’s where you go — Nunavut.
But me, I’m going south. I’ve come 1278 miles and there are 640 dollars remaining.