INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
Leaving my love, I turned the car toward the setting sun and headed west. I said to my friends I'll be home when you see me.
I always have a fine old time thinking in cars. It calms me. I mean I can moan and groan about what we humans are doing to the world, to the environment as well as anyone, but, still, I think God must have had the internal combustion engine in mind even before we got to America. I mean, they seem to go together, America and the ICB. I mean, I'd rather be out there walking like a pilgrim but, since I don't have that kind of guts, the next best thing is my own private car. And if my own private car is burning up the fossil fuel . . . Well, honey, we were just born to eat and shit, and you don't wanta stop up everything. So I'd say the car, my old, 1981, Honda wagon, my internal combustion engine saved me right then in the summer of 1990.
I mean, if I recall rightly, not only my life, but the whole world was going to hell. And my father, even my father who'd never given me credit for doing anything, not for having a big time job once, not for always making my own living, not for not complaining about how life turned out to be different than he told me it would be, not for anything. . . Anyway, I decided to head up to the Northwest to see Daddy. Why not? Mother died four years ago, and he's been grieving. Maybe we could grieve together.
But when you start out from just a few miles west of the East Coast it takes awhile. And I kept editorializing as I went. One of the main things that struck me was how ironic it was that we American idealists should be griping about Those Guys cutting down the tropical rain forest. We, I thought, should turn our eyes to our own belly and note how we had mowed down most of America -- some to plant crops, but mostly to plant grass seed.
God, the lawns!!!!!
I mean, stretches of green around a little bitty house, hurt the eyes with all that green! Mono-cropping they would call it in the Third World. Bio-diversity shot to hell. And not even for food, just for -- was it looks? Who really liked all that lawn better than the forest? Did the American people just need something to keep them busy on the weekends, mowing and mowing, and mowing? Think of all that gas power used up in the power mowers on those acres along the Mississippi, acres across Illinois, acres in the Dakotas, acres and acres of useless lawn all proclaiming -- What? I got too much money? I got too much land? I got too much energy? God created too much grass seed?
They'd practically made a garden out of the whole three thousand miles. I blessed the parched quality of the deserts when I finally got to where nothing at all would grow. But, no doubt, man'd be there next year with his irrigation systems. It's not man's nature to keep his hands off nature. Well I was going to try, I told myself, to keep my hands off my nature. I was going to try for once to be real quiet and sneaky silent and see if I could surprise my own human nature.
I drove on the secondary roads. Which in 1990 were hardly bad at all. Seems we'd filled in most of the pot holes. Wasn't like traveling when I was a kid -- long lines waiting to drive single file through the dust where they were always fixing the single lane highways, a single lane going east and a single lane going west. No, by '90 what we hadn't grassed over we'd managed to pave over. So you could drive eighty all the way looking at the grass, and the corn and the wheat, and the soy beans.
But I went off on the single lane roads. And some of them were still mighty pretty. Some forests left, and little old houses, and little old towns, and even a gas station or two where the guy says of your $10.33 bill--"Just give me the ten."
Unfortunately you don't get to meet too many people traveling across country in a car. That's why walking would be better. In a car the few people you do get to meet are the gas station attendants with whom you can talk about the weather and the price of gas. Or, buying a hunk of cheese in the grocery store, you can talk to the clerk about the weather and the price of cheese. I don't go to restaurants. But I don't mind keeping my mouth shut. Besides, I might walk later in life.
Along about the Great Salt Lake I began to ask myself really seriously what was it all about? Here were fifty miles of white, white as any snowfall, going off flat, mile upon mile upon mile to the hills. And I was passing by just at the right time to see the white shimmer, shimmer like a sheet embroidered with silver lace, and the mountains set way back, purple in the haze. Mile upon mile upon mile of the most perfect pristine -- well I didn't even know if you could call it land. Was it salt pan? I don't know. I had heard so many terms in my life and never applied them to reality that I didn't know. What was it all about? Life? Grief? Love?
I slept in the car. It was fine in the cool coming down out of the Rockies. But in Idaho, near The Craters of the Moon, I hit a pocket of scorching summer nights. God, how I longed to sleep in the streets with the aplomb of the people in India. But you don't do that in America. Poverty is a crime here. Everyone knows the criminal class is dangerous, including the criminal class themselves. So they make sure that poverty is reported as a crime and prey on the poor and you, if you happen to just want to be out under the moon and the stars. So I stuck to my car in the forest: windows 90% closed, even though I know criminals don't come looking for you in the woods.
People always ask me: "Aren't you afraid to sleep in your car?"
It just takes half a minute of reasoning: If I were a criminal and wanted to harm somebody would I go out looking through twenty miles of empty forest for that one little old lady sleeping in her car? But even in the forest, even in the heat I stuck to my car. My motto -- maybe I'll have it engraved on my chest one day -- is: "Be free, but be careful." For I knew there was no point in investing in fear and sickness and trembling unto death. I've spent long years defending myself against North American anxiety, paranoia insurance, investment in passing on scare stories. I just don't do it. I don't have an insurance policy to my name. The world for the most part is a safe place. Particularly if you don't watch TV or listen to the news on the radio. Mostly all your fellow man is after is money, so if you demonstrably have none, he's not going to bother you too much, unless you accidentally get in one of those mandatorily criminal ghettos of the poor on the city streets.
By the time I got to the Columbia River I was ready for some scenery. At four in the afternoon going down the north side of the Columbia, the sun shines upstream on that wide-as-the-Mississippi water, the water flowing west and turning to black gold in the setting sun. Up and down, up and down the gentle hills you drive on that good highway and around the gentle curves with the -- are they aspens? or cottonwoods? or alders? -- some kind of trees glistening and dancing in the wind and being pinged around by the sunshine. Across the water are the palisades where the famous falls come down out of the rocks. It's all green over there, and from across the river, it looks like moss, deep and furry moss, beautiful pinnacles of moss and white waterfalls, Multnomah Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and half a dozen other falls whose names I don't know, like a whole string of teen-aged sisters trying out their wedding gowns.
I've been to many places in the world, but there may not be any more beautiful place to drive than down the Washington side of the Columbia. You start from Biggs -- you cross out of Oregon at Biggs and then drive down the north side to the sea. No, no, not to the sea. That sounds great, but it's actually from Biggs to the Bridge of the Gods -- an old it-looks-like-an-Erector-Set-type of privately owned bridge. It isn't too long a stretch. It, the prettiest part of the drive, ends before you get to Vancouver, across from Portland. Just that stretch, maybe eighty miles.
Except that day, it was getting overcast even before I left Stonehenge, the copy of Stonehenge right near Maryhill and the Maryhill Museum. Visit Stonehenge, if you have a chance, on the banks of the Columbia. It was built as a World War I memorial by Sam Hill, the same guy who built the museum and, as the years pass, it's getting better. And it'll keep getting better in the wind and the storms if the new entrepreneurs, who just discovered it and built a gift shop on its doorstep, can keep their hands off. I mean, it needs to decay a bit more because, without using any imagination at all, it was built "perfect," all the stones standing, all of concrete. It's a little stiff. The original in England is much more appealing, some stones up and some stones down. Have you ever noticed that ruins are another one of those "less is more" kind of things?
Anyway it is getting overcast with some fog rolling in, and no sunlight is dancing anywhere and pretty soon I see a bunch of butterflies, single winged butterflies skimming across the water. At first I think that's pretty, and it is pretty unusual. Last time I drove down the Columbia, maybe six years before, there weren't any wind surfers. Now as I come around a corner and skim along the highway close to the river I suddenly see hundreds of them, tacking back and forth across the mighty river, back and forth, back and forth. Bright sails. Hundreds of them. Domesticating the great river. Trivializing it with their games. It makes me sad. And the overcast makes me sad. So when I see a sign that points north and says Big Huckleberry Mountain -- are you old enough to remember: "I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill?" -- or maybe it even said Mount Saint Helens right down there on the river, I turn north.
I start up into the hills, the mountains, away from the river. And the sky really closes in. It begins to rain through the swirling fog. Mist and rain coming down. Grey. Grey thoughts in my head. No idea where I'm going. It's ten years since Mount Saint Helens blew her top. Ten years and I haven't been up to see her yet. I can't rightly remember if I ever was up there when she was still whole. Maybe I was. I mean, I was born in the Northwest, so maybe I was. But I don't remember. As soon as she blew her top though, I know people began to speak of her with reverence, high old reverence for having been one of those perfect mountains, like Shasta. Shasta didn't have to blow her top to acquire a reputation for holiness. The Mystical Mountain. Well, maybe if I'd stayed home I would have known Saint Helens was mystically magical long before she blew her head off.
Anyway, I finally get inside the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument with my Golden Age Pass. It's getting darker. It's getting late afternoon. I mean late, and the rain is raining, I mean really pelting down. Every once in a while there is a lightning crack, thunder, but not close; the center of the storm is a distance away. It's not what's scary. It's the driving up and up and up and up and up through the grey, because now all along, outside the car even where the fog lifts in patches, even where the fog never was, it's grey. This is it. It finally registers. This is the devastation, all this gravel and all these broken trees that I see through the fog and the rain right up to the edge where they, not too long ago, laid down this road. The grey lives here, day and night. It's here. It's grey. It might look cheerier in the sunshine, but it doesn't change. It's rock and gravel and no growing things.
"You always wanted to visit the moon," I say to myself. "Well, welcome. Here you are." Even if it's raining, I add under my breath, and the night's coming down. I wind and wind on and on up the mountain into the night and the fog and the rain.
I can't figure out why I am doing this. I'm not going to get there in daylight. I'm not going to be able to see a thing. I know you can't sleep in a National Park outside a camp ground, and there are not going to be any camp grounds up here. The road's new and steep on both sides, with no amenities. Some construction materials are lying around in one of the few wide spots along the road where you can drive off and park and take a closer look at the grey devastation in the grey void.
In the beam of my headlights, all I see is this winding road and the rain coming at us as we, me and my trusty grey Honda, go up and up into this dark tunnel in the sky.
Finally I get to the top. How do I know it's the top? Well the road ends in a great big round cul-de-sac. Couple of Porta-Potties. Sheets of water pouring out of the sky, wisps of fog. I drive straight ahead from the end of the road right over to a sidewalk and a low wall and park right next to a pickup with a covered back, sitting there, dark in the rain. A Massachusetts license plate on its tail.
I sit there awhile with the wipers off. I can see about ten, fifteen feet off in all directions. I haven't a clue where I have come, except the signs said, Lookout Point or Observation Point, something like that, on Mount Saint Helens. The rain's running down the windshield, I feel like it's running down my heart. I'm not scared and I'm not tired, but I am alone.
Suddenly I think of my father and of my love, I dreamed of them last night. I dream of one or the other quite often, and I always dream of them not loving me. It's funny in my dreams I am always losing one or the other. They're always going out somewhere, always got something else to do. I'm always waking up unsatisfied, always left. Always a hole in my heart. And here I am on the top of the blown away mountain in the dark, not having one clue what I am going to do next.
Well, what am I going to do next? I mean you can only sit so long staring out into the dark through a rain-streaked windshield. I look to the left. I squint though my rain-streaked side window and the pickup's rain-streaked side window and I see only one human being in there and it looks like it's drinking a cup of coffee. It looks like a female human being drinking a cup of coffee. In other words, not scary. Safe.
Crisp and quick, I jump out of my car. I slam my door and I'm pounding on the side window of that pickup before I quite know what I am doing. The young-looking female-looking person leans across and rolls down the window an inch or two.
"Are you alone?" I scream, thinking she won't hear me in the rain and the wind, which now that I am out of my turtle shell I realize is blowing gale force. "Are you staying the night?"
I open her door, lean my face in to scream again just above the level of her high front seats. It's cold in there. "Come," I scream, "over and visit me."
"Okay! Close the door!"
So without so much as one step out of a beeline back to my car, I jump back in. It's still warm in there from the heater. I've been smart enough to get gas not too long ago, so I can afford, I figure, to run the heater if it doesn't stay warm. But it isn't too cold once I'm not in the wind.
I just sit staring out into the grey, the rain, the wind. I can tell now how hard the wind is blowing because I notice all the raindrops skitter sideways across the glass. After a good long while, finishing her coffee and looking at something in the cab of her pickup with a flash light, this young curly-headed, fresh-faced, dressed-in-trekking-clothes type comes over and climbs in my passenger side door.
"It's blowing!" she says.
"I'm Jan." I say.
"Bettina," says she.
"Are you going to stay up here tonight?"
"I figure not too many Texas Rangers going to come up here to tell us to move on."
We both laugh.
"What are you doing up here?" I ask.
"I'm a geologist," she says. "I'm studying geology at Harvard."
"So you can tell me all about this place."
"I've been driving around the mountain for two days picking up rocks. What a feast. Then I had to drive my friend down to Portland today so she could get back East for her boyfriend's return from Europe."
"So you're alone."
"Does that bother you?"
She shakes her head. "You?"
I shake my head.
"We were camping out together for three months. This is the first night I'm alone. I sure as hell can't sleep out there on the asphalt."
For over an hour she tells me about the geology of the Cascade Range pushing up five million years ago, about the volcanoes ringing the Pacific, spewing lava, active most of the time, and the minimal change that's taken place in the last ten years in the devastation that is lying there in front of us through the dark and the wet and the rain.
"I think we'll see something special in the morning," is the last thing she says as she gets out of the car.
"Hope the sun shines!'
And she is gone into the back of her pickup in the dark.
I wiggle around, crawl over the seat, take off my clothes. Even in the damp and the cold and the wind and the rain atop Mount Saint Helens, I still have to strip naked. I can't sleep any other way then stripped down to the flesh. I always wonder about other people in their sleeping suits. Getting all tangled up. I mean, I twist and turn in the night. Late in life I have decided what I do in the night is yoga: stretch this way for twenty minutes, than flop flop around to another position and stretch that way. I mean what else can I be doing?
I pull the blankets up to my chin, stuff the down pillows around me. I carry four of them, and that's a good amount so I can block drafts coming in at odd angles and still have one to put under my stomach when I lie face down. The wind and the rain are like lullabies.
I am happy. I am content. Right there on the top of a mountain all by myself in the Weather, with a capital W. "Know thy self," said Socrates.
In the morning I wake up and peer out over the front seats. The sun is as bright as a desert sun and it is beaming right into the biggest steaming hole I ever saw in my life -- which is lying right over the wall in front of me. I can hardly believe it. A huge, round, smoking Grand Canyon. It can't be seven yards away. And there are some little purple flowers right there against the wall. I scrunch forward. I'm lucky I got good training in being civilized, for I do pause long enough to struggle into my sweat suit, which isn't easy, as you know, half sitting, half lying in an old cold station wagon. Then I jump out and run to the wall.
Well, of course, there is a big ravine between me and it. But there IT is -- the crater left by the explosion. The sun is beaming on it and I'm gasping like I have emphysema. The crater's edges are all sharp and clear as if it had exploded just last night. And all around as I look to the right and to the left, the sun lies on the grey. As if the grey were gunmetal, it reflects all the glare of the sunlight back full force. For the grey is wet from the night. Down below to my right is a lake still a third full of logs -- floating. They look like Tootsie Rolls from this height, reddish-grey Tootsie Rolls against the grey water. The hill behind me, I see, has green pads on it, with nodding purple, trumpet shaped flowers. So something has started to grow.
And, in my 360 degree appraisal, I see there are five cars up there that have made it through the night. Later on, I find out that four of those cars are driven by single women, me and the young Bettina, and two other in-their-forties female nomads. The fifth, actually an RV, was owned by a couple.
And there's a phone. "Daddy," I say, "I'll see you tonight."
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: email@example.com
Other travel stories by Jan Haag include HOW I FELL IN LOVE WITH INDIA, TERROR, ZEN WALKING, SPAIN, and MISSION WALK.
Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO