The Bitterroot Chronicles: Highway Dirtbag

“Hi, Mama.”

“So, how’s the drive going?”

“Well, it’s been an adventure.”

“Oh, no.”

Mama could not have said two words that more perfectly expressed the lump of clay feeling pulling from the center of my chest down to my knees.

There was a time, as a kid, that I had anger, like a black hole, pulling all of me to my center.  Anger was the tendons that held my bones together.  Anger kept my muscles coiled tight, pulsed in my spine.

But I had dealt with that.  My adolescent devotion to stoicism had won out.

But not right now.

Right now I’m sitting in the parking lot of firestone tires, in Sheridan, Wyoming, trying to find $325, or someone who will loan it to me, or pay me to whisper dirty things in a dark alley (introverts make bad prostitutes).  To get context for me and my car’s subsequent breakdowns, we have to go back a few thousand miles.

I have, for the past eight months or so, been living a proud dirtbag existence.  I live on milk, eggs, peanut butter sandwiches and discounted food from work.  Every month, when the bills come in, is an immediate crisis, followed by a semi-confidant sigh of relief.  I regularly play chicken with my gas tank.  I’m proud of this life.  It’s as hard an existence as I’ve had in my white, middle class, mostly trouble free time on this earth.  It’s dusty and exhausted and beautiful.  So when my roommate’s dad gives me a less worn set of tires to replace my very worn tires, it’s like I’ve fallen into the lap of luxury.

A gift of tires is especially wonderful, as my broke ass is about to drive 4,000 miles to Denver to Kentucky to Denver to Missoula again.  It’s about to be an epic saga for a college student with no money and a poor sense of planning ahead, so any and all handouts are welcome.

There’s just one particular knot in my already knotty rope.  I just changed my oil two weeks ago, and I’m way too lazy to go back to the shop to get my tires changed.  Also, nothing in life is free, because free tires or no, they still charge to switch those things out.  Money is preciously thin.

So I leave Missoula with tires that are balder than my Papa’s head, and less of a care in the the world than I should have.

I make it to Denver–tires fine, eyes a little bloodshot.  I get to see Hannah, Rachael and Jeremy for the first time since September of last year.  I have now forgotten about my balding tires.

After a day of rest, Han and I make our way to Iowa City.  I brought a tent.  I did not bring tent poles.  At two-thirty A.M., it starts raining.  There was a point where I enjoyed night driving in the rain.  Right now, though, I’m driving on a few hours of sleep, gas station coffee and those goddamn tires.  Hydroplaning is the realest thing that’s ever happened to me.  Also, Hannah is sleeping in the passenger seat.

But I two and ten that shit at sixty-five miles an hour through the rain and lightning and past one of the most gorgeous sunrises I’ve ever seen.

Hello, Cincinnati.  Hello, Kentucky.  Five days go by like the last year and a half never did.

Goodbye Kentucky.  Goodbye, you beautiful Queen City.

Back through Denver, no problem.

A few short hours with friends I haven’t seen in two years.  Ice cream, city cruising, walking by the Platte. Regeneration.

I should be in Missoula by eight P.M. tomorrow.

Wyoming is gorgeous, a little desolate and hot.  The thermometer on the dash says ninety-five degrees fahrenheit.  I’ve already plowed through two nalgenes.  I keep the speedometer at seventy miles and hour in an eighty mile an hour speed zone.  Partly I don’t trust my engine, partly my car is packed heavy with everything I’ve collected over the years–reunited with me after a short separation.  Me in Oakland and Missoula, they in Grants Lick, Kentucky.

I have about eight hours to go when I hear a bang, then a flapping that pulls me over to the shoulder.  I can already feel the fist sized hole in my tire without looking at it.

This is when I lose it just a little.  I know I have a spare.  I also know I have no tire iron or jack.  That ten year old, my life is falling apart, anger beats it’s way out of the compartment I’ve made for it, barely cracked for even a peek all these years.

For a moment, I’m a cliché I’ve never been a part of–a man with car trouble, fist slamming the roof, fuck flying every which way.

I pop the hood, pull half my shit onto the side of I-25, find my spare and sit next to it, hoping someone takes pity on a twenty year old in cut offs and a sleeveless shirt who is obviously incapable of changing a tire.

They do.  Two of them.  Separately.  A man and a woman.  Both road workers, who know each other.  They hand me a powerade and go about changing the tire, while I sit and watch.  I feel a bit like a child, but I’m too grateful to be embarrassed.

“You’re from Kentucky?  Are you moving?”, asks the woman.

I explain where I’m from and what I’m doing.

“So you’re a forestry student.  I guess that makes sense.  There’s not much else in Montana.”, she says while standing in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.

I have to try and not laugh.

I ask her if my other three tires will make it home.

She doubts it.

It’s now twelve-thirty P.M.

I pack back up and drive off, conscious of every bump on the road, every noise from my car.

I never got their names, but they left me with that powerade and a strong handshake.

Sheridan, Wyoming has several tire stores.  I check two of them.  I already know I don’t have the money to pay for new tires, and when I walk into firestone, I’m as close to praying as I’ve ever been in the last two years.

The salesman, Jim, or James–something like that–listens to my story and does his best.

“I have to make some calls, see if I can get the money,” I tell him.

“Do what you need to do,” he says. “We do have a credit card offer that we can sign you up for, if you don’t have any luck.”

I walk back in five minutes later.

“Credit card.  Let’s do it.”

I’m approved.  Privilege is on my side.

Now I wait till my car is ready.  I call Mama, for some sympathy, and I get it in those two simple, beautiful words.  We talk.  I walk a mile down the road for some Subway, which a stranger pays for.  I walk back, smoke a cigarette with the mechanic, and finally I’m back on the road.

It’s four-thirty P.M.

I have to work tomorrow afternoon, or I’d alleviate my stress with an impromptu day in Yellowstone.  I do, however, stop in Bozeman for the night.  I get a few hours of sleep in the passenger seat of my car, pulled off at a rest stop, two jackets balled into a pillow, bandana blindfold to keep out the streetlights.

Finally, at nine-thirty A.M., I pull into my driveway.  I’m dirty and I stink.  I have no money to pay rent, which was due yesterday, and I have brand new tires on credit.  My eyes now have red spots that don’t look good, and my finger is swollen and purple from slamming it in the car door back in Illinois.

I feel more like a dirtbag today than I have in the past eight dirtbag months.  And I love it.

I wrote this, as a Christmas present, for my little sis at her request.

I captured a star.

Caught it looking at the moon.

Wrapped it up in my pocket.

I captured a star.

Wanted to hold it’s light.

Thought it would make me happy.

I captured a star.

Now I’ve got nothing

But a light I can’t let go.

I captured a star.

I never knew before

That a star wants to capture the moon.

Fragments: Part One

Well a long long train pulled up to the station, and the cars kept going till you couldn’t see the end.  And it took me a while, but I finally saw a blinking green light about forty-three cars down, and it went on blinking, alternating with the gear grinding steam blowing engine chug forty-three cars ahead.  And the light didn’t mean a thing, blinking way down the line, but it dug deep inside my head, threatening existentialism.  I don’t know why, but I kept staring at that light, my heart matching it’s disjointed, irregular blinking.  I’ve never seen a light go on and off irregular like that.  It’s like a drummer beating out a rhythm you can’t quite keep track of but you know keeps time somehow.

The train just sat there, hissing and shuddering.  No one got on or off, and I couldn’t help but think that light was waiting for me to do something, but I just stood, waiting back, my eyes caught up in that green flashing.

The Bitterroot Chronicles: Fog

There’s been a heavy fog in Missoula since Sunday.  That’s one, two, three, four days of fog.  Day one was great.  I love fog.  It’s wonderfully mysterious to only see the next hundred feet in front of you.  Day two was still nice.  It’s day four now, and the air in my lungs is starting to feel like molasses.  I’d like to see the sky.

I’m reminded of one spring in Kentucky when the sun went missing for a whole month.  I asked around, looked in the closet, but the sun won that game.  Eventually, I gave up, and the sun came sulking up over the horizon, part of it glad to have won, and the other part moping that I had given up on our childhood games.

This is different.  It’s not that the sun is playing games–it doesn’t have a hand to play here.  The fog, having moved in to my room, has decided I’m the one visiting.  His shit is all over the room, his boxes are taking up the space underneath my bed, and he doesn’t like me in the room when he’s busy.

It makes me so tired.  I just want my own space.  I want to see the cars coming toward me from far away.  I want the beautiful to be what’s seen instead of what isn’t.  The mystery is no longer mysterious, it’s expected.

I don’t know if my desire to know the future is a fault or a virtue, or if it even belongs on a scale.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the present, or appreciate the unknown.  I do love the sort of hedonist, to hell with what’s not now, attitude.  But causation has been pounded into me too hard and for too long to not leave an impression.  I am caught up in each thought that pertains to my own life, and my mind relentlessly presses each future moment through endless possibilities like a grape in winepress.

Maybe I should just get used to the fog.  There doesn’t seem to be much else I can do.

The Bitterroot Chronicles: Toilet Paper Not Included

I have to confess, childhood is my safe place.  When I’m most stressed out or scared, I just wish I could become a child again–lost in a world of total safety and pleasure.

As a child, my biggest worries were that the cereal I wanted was out, and that my brother hid the last of the cookies. Maybe on a really bad day, I shit my pants in the car.  I won’t lie, that traumatized me just a little.

I never had to worry about money, because for me, money was some vague cosmic thing that cut short a vacation or caused my parents to fight.  Money wasn’t tied to the real, tangible world that I skipped through.  Money was out there.

This basic idea followed me through adolescence.  Now, even though money was something I could touch, smell and spend, it’s essence still belonged to another world.  Sure, with forty-five bucks I could go to King’s Island, and with twenty more, I could buy food there, but there wasn’t a direct link between the twenty dollars and the satisfaction of my hunger.  Money bought the food, but the food fed me, and in my mind how I got the food was arbitrary.  Food just exists, and sometimes you happen to get some when you give twenty dollars to someone.

Even with my first job, money had no real value to me.  If something is of value to you, you hold on to it.  I made one hundred bucks a week selling pizzas, and to me, this one hundred dollars was just a path to the things I wanted.  Money had value insofar as it could get people to give me the things I wanted.  And work had value insofar as it earned me money that could get people to give me the things I wanted.

Suddenly, I had a fundamental shift in values.  Yesterday, I cared about satisfying my desires.  Today, I care about the work I put into getting what buys the satisfaction of my desires.  My happiness is now a reward for the work I do, rather than a result of living life.  And the whole time this crisis is taking place, my parents and bosses and peers are cheering me on.  It’s not that I’m becoming a slave to myself, they say, like a pavlovian dog that rings it’s own bell out of a sense of duty, forever ringing and wanting, ringing and wanting.

“No,” I’m told, “you have a tremendous work ethic.  You see the value of labor.”  And I believe them.

And the whole thing is oxygenated and lubricated by money.  None of it means anything without money.

I go on this rather depressing philosophical rant to make a point about my new life and what I perceive as reality.  In many ways, I still had little pockets of my childhood way of thinking about money and objects, pockets I believe I was holding onto as long as I could, because I knew when I lost them, I would lose another connection to my safe place.

There comes a point in many people’s lives when their parents try to impress upon them the importance of money.  For me, it came wrapped the package of a car.  That is not to say my parents bought me a car, quite the opposite.  The nearer to driving I came, the more money became a subject of conversation–specifically the saving of money, a concept I still do not have a grasp of.  Eventually, it was the longer I went without my own car, after getting my license.  As I said, I’m not good at saving.  Consequently, after deciding I wanted to move to Montana, for which I needed a car, I still had nothing saved.

It is here that I became aware of a concept my Uncle John refers to as goodwill.  This same Uncle John and his wife Sandy took me into their California home for six months and gave me a job.  Not only was it a way to save money, it gave me training for the future.  You see, John is a carpenter.  Now in my irrational mind, I was thinking of pastoral scenes.  I know that doesn’t make sense, but my reference for carpentry was Jesus.  Again, don’t laugh.  Now you hear the words Jesus was a carpenter, but he’s always sitting with flock of sheep.  You can see the conclusions I drew.  Cut to me breaking up a concrete patio with a jackhammer, and a flock of fucking sheep are the last thing on my mind.  But it got me money, and it gave me experience.  It also gave me awareness of how much goodwill I have–something I can rely on when I don’t know how I’ll pay the rent next month.

Anyway, I saved enough money for a car and a couple months rent once I got to Missoula.  But after years of hearing, “save money for a car,” I had it in my mind that I was saving for a car.  I guess it never crossed my parents minds to let me know about registration fees and title fees and smog check fees and hey, your trying to make it somewhere in life, so give me a cut, fees.  A slice here and a slice there, and I’m running way lower on money than I thought I would.  At least I got a fuel efficient car.

But now, my friends, we come to the real point–toilet paper.  You see I can buy a car, and pay the fees, and save up quarters in a jar for gas, but if I don’t have the money to buy toilet paper, I might be returning to my childhood in a way I really don’t want.  You see, one thing that never left me from my younger years is my perception of where things come from.  Toilet paper, olive oil, pepper and aluminum foil all just exist.  You don’t have to buy these things.  You need to wrap something up, you just open the drawer that has aluminum foil in it.  Sure, you have to buy food, but seasonings and pots to cook it in, those things just come with the house.  No one thinks to mention buying these things to their kid, because no one is supposed to think that way, but I’m pretty sure most twenty somethings out on their own for the first time can relate.

Toilet paper just never crossed my mind.  I wasn’t told to save up for that.  Who saves up for toilet paper? Well you better believe that next time I live on my own for the first time, I’ll have money for toilet paper.

The Bitterroot Chronicles: Misfortune in Corporate America

Day one in any new place has to be out of the ordinary.  Having never moved before, I don’t have much to compare this experience to, but it’s not like you just fit into a new place like a hand in an old leather glove.  Brand new places need time to stretch and mold themselves.

Of course, as a kid I visited different places because of my dad’s work.  We never moved, but we sometimes spent several months in one place.  I don’t remember anything about New Orleans–babies tend not to–and I only have snapshots of Florida and Philadelphia, but Canada is vivid.

I think I’ll always remember my first day in Canada.  After a long ass, and I do mean long ass, drive, we made it to our new driveway–a driveway filled with three feet of snow.  I was about as happy as my parents were near to tears.  To a Kentucky kid, for whom four inches of snow and two inches of ice is a good winter, this was Shangri la.

Cut to a different first day–one that has made me appreciate my parents tears.

Excited to hell and back, I drive farther up the Bitterroot valley towards Missoula, checking my phone for reception every five minutes.  You see, I don’t have directions to my new house, and only half the expectation of getting cell service.  Coverage maps take on new importance when you’re in Montana.

The Missoula city limit sign flashes past me.  Still no service.  Verizon it is.

Never have I been so glad to see a Starbucks.  I pull into one of it’s profit driven corporate parking spaces, glide across the beautiful prefabricated threshold, and wrap myself in the comforts of free wifi.

A quick Google maps search, and I have my directions on the back of an envelope.  Two middle fingers up to the Starbucks I’m again free to hate, I’m back to my symbol of small batch individualism Subaru.  Which is locked.  With the keys in the ignition.  And a phone that has no service.  Can you take middle fingers back?

Twenty minutes and one humbling Starbucks phone borrowing later, my individualism is unlocked and I’m again riding the wind, throwing my middle finger to the corporate establishment.

Finally, I pull into my new driveway, hoping the lack of cars in it is not matched by a lack of people inside.

It is.

Oh hey, Starbucks.  I just need to find a Verizon store and I’ll be out of your god awful mermaid hair.

Another two hours, and I stumble out of the Verizon store with bloodshot eyes and a new phone.

Several phone calls later, I’m actually moving into my new house, and as I curl up on the thermarest that is my bed, I’m happy that today happened just as it did.  Because whether it’s three feet of snow in the driveway or repeated run ins with misfortune and corporate America, day one has to be different.  Anything else just makes for a boring story.

The Bitterroot Chronicles

MissoulaDowntown

I like to think that my life is beginning again, right in the middle, like an episode of a T.V. show, or the old western where the drifter come riding into town out of the wasteland.  Even the few who know my name don’t really know me.  I’m a phantom, an invisible man suddenly given substance.

Of course, I know this is not true.  I know that hiding in the back of my car are all my past experiences and emotions, by which all my present actions are dictated.  I know I’m just play acting, and that the first time I return home–that inescapable green rolling hills chipped yellow paint farmhouse home–I will fall back into old roles and old projections will be cast on my white sheet face.  I know all this.  But I do enjoy becoming lost in the scene, if just for a moment.

Missoula, the stage of my little scene, does, in a way, remind me of the inescapable home.  The salt encrusted 4X4 set in their ways but happy to open a door for you old men go about their simple lives.  Two lane roads that say “thirty-five and no more” but really mean “as long as you’re comfortable” cut their way towards town.

But home never had mountains.  Home didn’t have a glimmer of change in it’s old eyes.  Home never said, “you’ve arrived, and I’ve been waiting for you”.

Home was a place of comfort.  It was a place of spring peepers and fireflies, cream cheese coffee cake and tootsie rolls on the stairs, cornhole in the back yard and Ale-8.  Home was all of these things, but also of worn out traditions and rusted dreams.  Home is inescapable, but needs to be left.

Of course the leaving has been full of growing pains, but even these are beautiful.  They each have their part to play in my little scene,

The Bitterroot Chronicles.