Touring the US Back Highways in a 1964 Robin Open Road, in Discovery of Human Flourishing
A few chronicles of our autumn road trip, as we attempt to make our way from Oregon to New York City.
ONE: Silent Summer
Their voices have returned. I’ve been at our forest cabin above Ashland for two days now and the sun’s rays are revealed for the first time since my arrival. The plane’s landing this time was enveloped with thick smoke blowing northward from the California wildfires. Last summer when I was here, the oppressive gray-white smoke originated in southern Oregon, from a local fire, said to have accidentally started at an encampment of people experiencing homelessness, that completely swallowed up a nearby town, displacing 3,000 households of people. For the rest of us, it was a week without sun, with smoke-induced asthma and worries of homes being burned, and for the fire victims a new life born of loss. The tragedy of where and how the fire started leading to more people being without homes is not lost. Our cabin sits above the snowline, usually above the clouds and the fog. Since my arrival, the smoke has crept its way up the mountain, encroaching on our tiny remote dwelling. On this 100-degrees day, we question the safety of having the windows open in this tiny room with no air-conditioning. Defying the smoke, the sun is peeking through today, and the eerie silence of yesterday is filled with the twittering of birds, the chirps of chipmunks, and the wave of cicada song cascading from up the hill to Tolman Creek down below. Even the wind is back, stirring its gentle music in the pine boughs.
I once heard a story of a scientist in pursuit of any remaining place in the world with one square foot of true silence. The hypothesis was that, due to human activity, silence was no longer able to be found, for even in deep, remote wilderness the sound pollution of plane traffic could still be heard miles above. That project was mis-characterized. If you’ve ever set foot in a healthy forest, you have heard the symphony of life that prevents pure silence. I have, on two occasions, experienced pure silence. The first time was one July in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, completely alone in the wilderness at sunrise before the winds picked up. In 400 square miles of dry lakebed, there are no trees to host birds and insects. Save for the times when recreationalists are present, the only sounds there are from the wind that increases throughout the day as the sun warms the pale clay playa, and the occasional thunderstorm. Arising at dawn is easy when camping in the wilderness, as it was that morning. The emergent sun painted the sky rose pink as I breathed silently in perfect stillness being part of the pure silence. I recognized that it is rare to be in a lifeless void of no sound. The second time I experienced such absence of sound was yesterday sitting on the deck of the cabin.
Eight-hundred-thousand years before I sat on this deck in the company of pine trees and cedars, humans attained the knowledge-tool of controlled fire, which was variously used, including to burn woodlands that would regrow as grasslands attractive to prey, not unlike the modern practice of burning jungle to create cattle pastures. We modern humans have a tendency to romanticize the past and view our present as the worst period of bad behavior perpetrated by humans on the land and web of life. One aspect of reality is that Homo sapiens has been dominating the food chain for one-hundred thousand years, and decimating mega-fauna and affecting the food web for the last seventy-thousand years. Woolly mammoths in Siberia, giant prehistoric kangaroos in Australia, saber-toothed cats in North America, humans expedited their extinction. Evolutionary archaeology shows us several important things about our species: 1. Our survival is not guaranteed; 2. It tells the stories of how our species spread over Earth and changed the composition of life on this planet; 3. Our species is diverse, with some of us having the propensity to nurture partnership and steward the living while others of us wage war and destroy life and the land through domination and lack of relatedness. There are numerous truthful facets to us humans — as a species, we are no singular particular way.
Another aspect of reality is that in the tiny slice of time since the Industrial Revolution, a mere 200 years, our species has gunked-up this planet with waste that affects our long-term ability to feed ourselves. We eat plastic that has merged with our seafood as a result of the plastic we’ve dumped in the ocean waters. It should go without saying: Eating plastic is contraindicated for human flourishing. Rivers of once drinkable water are contaminated with agricultural runoff that is toxic to fish and causes algae blooms that choke out the life-web like it’s a UFC combat match. We may be clever in engineering temporary workarounds when we destroy foodsheds, yet our survival is not guaranteed. In 1966 the dystopian sci-fi crime story Soylent Green foretold the factors (climate catastrophe, pollution, overpopulation) that led to a corporate food product of green crackers known simply as Soylent Green, the mysteriously-sourced sole food product in the world available to the masses to sustain human life. The film that followed made famous the plot-spoiling line, “Soylent Green is…people!” It brings to mind the First Nations’ stories of the Windigo, the legendary once-human monster creature who, from extreme hunger, cold, isolation, and/or greed, cannibalizes humans.
Famed choreographer Alonzo King informed us gracefully that movement is the principal expression of life. If silence grows, life no longer lives there. One of the remarkable aspects of our humanity is our capacity for caring, nurturing, and stewardship. In domination cultures that teach “winning” at all costs, one can forget that for most humans, we experience more joy from sharing and helping each other than “beating” each other, and most of us love helping life grow. We flourish in relationship with others where we give and receive. When we are related to the uncertainty of our survival, we pay attention to what we are doing. Our survival as a species is not guaranteed. As such, when we are related to our living relatives on Grandmother Earth, the animals and plants and currents, it is easier to love and care for ourselves because loving and caring for them means loving and caring for ourselves.
Next Travel Plans: In the next few days we’ll fix up Roma, and begin our journey with the first destination of our friends’ wedding near Yosemite.
TWO: The Wedding
Her rhythmic lurching tugs us forward. Eh-urrr… Eh-urrr… Eh-urrr… David’s eyes dart from the pale green softly-illuminated 1960’s dashboard, simple and elegant in its antiquity, to the dark Interstate-5 asphalt, dimly lit by her six-decades-old headlights. We’re barely a mile from the down-sloping on-ramp. A mere three minutes from the tire store parking lot we just departed after unexpectedly spending two hours there. David on his back under the chassis literally filing away with a rasp the newly discovered rough edges of the camper’s wood frame. As soon as we began our trip just before sunset, the frame and tires began voicing their disagreement by audibly rubbing each other around every turn down the mountain from our cabin. Thanks to complex vehicle preparations, we are already a day late to help set up Raman and Karin’s wedding, but that doesn’t matter to the old frame who is not a fit for the recently added modern wheels. We both hold our breath with a prayer that Roma makes it to the next exit, five miles up a six-percent mountain grade. We lurch at 35 miles per hour, alternating blurts of “Come on, Roma!” and patting the dashboard encouragingly with checking the mirrors and “Oh, nooooo….” as the line of headlights of autos and big-rig trucks pile up behind us on the under-construction, down-to-one-lane freeway with no shoulder. It’s Thursday night. We still have time to get to Twain Harte before morning, a mere 300 miles, prior to the guests’ Friday arrival.
The stillness awakens me. I peek out the orange-check curtains I sewed a few weeks ago as part of Roma’s face-lift. The streetlights are still on. I repeat this numerous times from the over-cab bed in the camper. A gas station. A rest-stop. A big-box-store parking lot. A gas station. Another big-box-store parking lot. The hood of the truck is opened at every stop. By morning, we have made it 60 miles, and David has not slept. Our travel rate is approximately 10 miles for every two-hour stop. Not how we had imagined starting this trip, especially given the significant cash we put into professional engine work before this journey. Friday is spent in the parking lot of a Napa Auto Parts in Red Bluff, after being rebuffed in all attempts to be seen by any of the nearby mechanics shops. In this town, no one wrenches on trucks this old, or they can’t see us until next week. The wedding weekend will be long over by then. I hide in the shade of the camper under the mid-day sun alongside the Sacramento River, as David traces the engine power loss to a fuel issue. At every stop since we left Ashland he works to isolate the issue further. We are fortunate that David’s an amazing builder and engineer. Vehicle engines, as he says, however, are not his favorite thing to work on. Maybe it’s the gas tank. Original, and probably really rusty. In the Napa store parking lot, David fully removes the gas tank from behind the bench seat in the cab. The guys in the Napa store are friendly to us. They lend us a dolly to which David straps the fuel tank. He pushes it three blocks to a gas station to drain and refill the tank. More than once, we revisit the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and laugh.
The stillness awakens me. The morning sun of Saturday is reaching through the orange-check curtains that we’ve come to love. For all her mechanical issues, we are falling in love with Roma, praying that she isn’t a money pit, and that we can work out her issues. David found a mechanic in North Sacramento. The location of his shop looks like a house. On the phone, he says he shut his shop down, but he talks with David for a few minutes. You’re going to a wedding today? I see. We pull the rig into his driveway. He comes out in his mechanic’s shirt, Robert embroidered over the breast in yellow script, his face shows the wear of forty-odd years. It’s 9:30am. David still hasn’t slept. It feels like we’re going to Burning Man. We are immensely grateful for this miracle. A mechanic whose shop no longer exists is willing to help us on a Saturday morning. David is jazzed — Robert seems to know his stuff. Around noon, a tall woman wearing soccer socks and running shorts arrives. David greets her cheerfully and asks how she is. “F*cked up,” she replies roughly. David and I exchange glances as she goes in the house with Robert. She departs within 20 minutes. Robert and David speak under the hood numerous times. David steps inside the camper where I’m brewing coffee on the turquoise stove. Something’s going on where he can’t get a clear answer out of Robert. It’s noon. The hood is still open. A different woman comes out of the house and collects Roma’s VIN. Robert is apparently searching online for the right parts. It’s 1pm. A guy with no shirt on arrives in a small white pickup. In place of his shirt is a tangle of tattoos covering his wiry torso and arms. Inside he goes, and away he goes within 20 minutes. Robert tells us he needs to buy new spark plugs and that he’ll go to the store to get them. Robert is increasingly disappearing into the house for longer periods. David recounts to me how a few hours earlier, in an attempt to get a clear answer, he shared with Robert how tired he is, that he hasn’t really slept since he last woke up on Wednesday morning, which may be why he’s not following Robert’s thinking. Robert’s response: “I have tools for that.” Uh-oh. 45 minutes later, he still hasn’t left for the store. It’s 2pm. The wedding is at 4pm. Sitting in Roma, David calls Robert, and then the two of us and Cassius are off in Roma to the auto parts store. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re dealing with a drug scene until you piece the signals together after the fact.
THREE: The Painting
The sun is setting behind the young maple trees in the parking lot. The wedding dinner is now happening. Speeches, one of which I was to provide, are now being given. Champagne flutes are being raised, joy and laughter all around. David is replacing blackened spark plugs with brand new ones from the store a few parking spaces away. The feast is being served. Fresh vegetables, fish, and buffalo, lovingly cooked up by local chefs in the Good People Lodge at Camp Earnest. I bring to David simple tacos in styrofoam boxes. David shares how years ago in northern Mexico he worked with kids to create shade structures from masses of styrofoam trash for tin shack homes that bake in the sun. We are grateful for the calories on our laps in this food desert where a first generation Mexican-American daughter rang me up for our dinner. I wipe my fingers of yellow artificial nacho cheese sauce, an impulse-buy sparked by sad emotions. Before the parking lot nachos, I record a video of myself and David as he works on the engine. You just got married. We are so happy for you. We are not going to make it. We are here, in another parking lot…I’ll call you on Monday.
The benefit of being stranded outside the presumed-drug-dealer’s house all Saturday, back when we remained optimistic that we’d still make it, is that we have the time to complete a small building project for the wedding. We build it on the presumed-drug-dealer’s front lawn, on a busy street with no shortage of muscle cars and motorcycles annoyingly gunning their engines past the house. We had intended to complete it on-site on Thursday during set-up day. David and I had been tasked with building two 8’x4’ canvas frames. David gathered the wood for the frames and the plywood backing-board, which we transport inside the camper. This small detail adds considerable unexpected complexity. Inside the camper, the boards block the kitchen, the storage we use for our bathroom personal care items, the clothes closet. Not a big deal for a single travel day. Cumbersome when we are unexpectedly stuck with the vehicle on the road-side for multiple days. Each morning David unloads the wood so that we can make food and coffee, and brush our teeth. As Saturday evening comes on, I grow angry at the boards in how they are blocking the flourishing of me meeting my basic needs. For the project, while David bought the wood, I collected all the necessary art materials. 100 colors of acrylic paint, 60 paint brushes, 40 magic markers, 20 feet of canvas. The result would be two large art-ifacts, created collectively by the guests as they arrived, each adding in paint and ink their blessings for the bride and groom. Three months prior, I had, with full confidence, enthusiastically told Raman that he could count us. You don’t need to do anything on this. We’ve got it handled! And we did. Until the sputtering, and the causing-freeway-traffic-delays, and the parking lots, and the rest stops, and the gas stations, and the dozen trips inside auto stores, and the string of sleepless nights for the pilot of our beloved Roma.
Why don’t we just park Roma and rent a car, you ask? Well, you may have picked up that it’s… complex. Roma’s in a state of being-repaired/restored/made-workable. It’s not physically possible to park her securely, even at a paid lot. Add to that that we’re trucking 32 square feet of wood (times 2), with no alternative plan for sleeping arrangements once at the wedding… we are too far in at this point, our optimism has been too strong. The clock has run out, and we are stuck with the reality that we just can’t make it. On top of it, David has a sore throat. Is it just road-weariness? Is it a cold? Is it Covid?
…It was sad enough that we are not there with you right now. It was sad enough that we weren’t there to help on set-up day. It was sad enough that I told you that you could count on us, but we didn’t make it. The saddest part though, is that now you don’t have the artifacts from your wedding. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We won’t be there in person, but there will be an artifact of marriage blessings from their wedding guests. And so Plan B, which will require numerous weeks/months to complete, begins.