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Notes from Open Land
by Wendy Lewis

Snapshots and Long Takes: A Heavily Abbreviated Travelogue

Roads and roads and roads connected to other roads to interstates to eight lane interstates to two-lane roads to gravel roads to on ramps, off ramps, rest stops and truck stops, bridges and tunnels. Plains and foothills, mountains and cities and towns. Forests of pine and gigantic redwoods and tunnels and cliffs and ocean off the western slopes. Friends and acquaintances found in houses and yards, restaurants and bars, stumbled on along sidewalks and pathways to here or from there. Broke down motels, thin carpet, and permeable shower curtains which flood the floor and stinky bar soap and towels like sandpaper and bad cable TV and 80's bedspreads and mauve and industrial pillows and Irish whiskey in a plastic cup and bad coffee and powdered cream. Cheap surprise motels with comfy beds and good wi-fi and ice machines outside the door and bottled soap, shampoo and lotion and tiny coffee machines with coffee packs and clean carpet and hellcat shower action.

We'll start here, after Denver and Boulder and amazing, embracing friends. Leaving morning fog and the remnants of mountains, tumbling weightless into sun and cerulean sky over the flat, barren, white plate. 30,000 acres of it. The light, surreal. White, the conflagration of all colors of light, appears refracted, excited, supercharged in a crazy disco dance off the Salt Flats. Were it not for mountains in the distance drawing horizon, one would lose all sense of gravity. Unimaginable--humans living here 10,300 years ago and then we lost our nerve. More recent passers-by have left humble shrines, a baked-brown pine tree braced into the salt with twine and stakes, a red wheelbarrow, upended, a cross marking the end of a life, plastic flowers that will outlive us all. Messages drawn with pebbles. I rearranged one to Oh because that's all I could say . I stood out there awhile looking around and then pocketed some pink-tinged rocks but when I licked them, they didn't taste like salt. Nothing makes sense.

Tires humming for hours. Brutal, bleak, beautiful and timeless beyond reason or boundary. The terrain sleeps—waits, earthen bodies reclined beneath stubborn, taciturn mountain shadow. Skin. Smooth and tanned and weather-beaten skin: pocked, moled, dimpled and stubbled. Grey elephant skin. Shoulders, elbows, knees, hips, gracefull crotches and jaw lines turned toward or against the heavens. Later, soft folds of fabric, a dress dropped on a bedroom floor or bolts of fabric dropped from the moonman, and later still, angry accusing angles of the end or the beginning of something. I am dumbstruck. Nevada. This uninhabitable land; it cannot be conquered... no water, no gardens, no trees. Creosote bush and sagebrush and tough, razor edged grasses. Some people live here anyway out of choice, or not. You could get so lost, so so lost l o s t     l  o  s  t    l    o    s    t     l    o    s    t       l     o     s     t

I said, out loud if some pain were too big, too unbearable, I would come here to have it; here, where any and every thought or being or event can be dwarfed. He said nothing. For miles and hours, we both said nothing at all.

Bella's Café and Gentleman's Club. Truckers welcome. Food? OK. When we walked into the homely "updated" cafe sporting hard plastic, mustard- colored booths like Burger King, the pastry case was unmistakably filled with confections fashioned by very human hands. Amidst the redhotred Bella's Gentleman's Club T-shirts available in XL to XXXL sizes only, a horrible (in the very wrong way) greeting card line of unicorns and fairies and cheesy books for sale about being over-the-hill or staying happy-even-though, and what looked to be great coffee beans. The bathroom actually smelled chemically fresh. The first thing the soft-spoken, thin, weathered-blonde who might have played out her "pole dancing days" brought me was a fragrant, foaming glass of just-squeezed orange juice. What? I was expecting machine dispensed orange glucose concentrate. Then, giant eggs smiled up with free-range eyes, five thick slabs of bacon, perfectly oiled home fries grilled with onions and red peppers and a killer pureed, fresh, hot salsa offered and homemade bread sliced with a serrated knife and toasted. Damn. Bella's…. if you're ever in Wells, Nevada.

Reno. It was all about Tony the lifer bartender and the excellent Japanese/Chinese cuisine, the crazy collection of diners in for a late dinner from Sumo wrestler types to the white-trash couple who didn't understand the menu. San Fran was a fine city as usual—good food in Union Square and the North End, Vesuvio Bar, wandering The Mission for 25 blocks to no-Make-Out-Room-avail and really aggressive panhandling. My guilt ran out quickly. NO! Cigarettes are expensive. Buy your own goddammit. Sonoma was all about our pal Matthew Nagan, chef of the Shelleville Grille and non-stop performance artist. Thanks for all those bottles of wine we consumed on empty stomachs and then, firing up the grill to fill them. Baseball on the TV, storytelling late into the night and a discounted room he finagled over the phone.

Up the coastal highway – Hwy 1. What can you say when you are driving on switchback roads for hours that loft you above the cloud bank moving gracefully in over the Pacific Ocean? Not much. Down on the beach at Salmon River. Huge flocks of gulls sitting, milling, rising, screeching. Surfers timing the waves from their boards. A mom and her kid doing things with sand. Enormous driftwood logs parallel to the surf. The remains of bonfires black and jagged in the sand. A lone man, walking away from me. Sand in my hair. Salt in my nose and in my lungs, and on my dry lips.

The Avenue of the Giants eventually led us to Kristy and Dylan in Fort Bragg, CA at TW's Restaurant, a ramshackle, down-trodden coastal town but there we all were on a foggy, chilly west coast evening. Kristy grew up in Sacramento but mentioning Minnesota, she recounted her only visit to grandma's house in Brainerd at 10 years of age. She not only heard Paul Bunyon call out her name in the amusement park, but also contracted Lyme's disease and after returning to California, spent months recovering in the hospital and then, in a wheelchair. Kristy's bored in Fort Bragg, she says, but it's cooler than Sacramento. She's just trying to take care of her kids and buy groceries. Dylan is, yes indeed, named after Bob Dylan and her father is a bona fide freak. Her brother's first name is Zimmerman. It's true. It's always easy to talk to people in these places and I'm not sure why. Once again, the motel bragged wi-fi and lied.

Eureka, CA proffered amazing food at an unexpectedly hip restaurant by city standards, served to us at the bar with also hip but uncomfortable stools by a sweet, innocent, chatty local girl who was off to San Francisco in a few weeks for art school. Dinner was followed by the worst prison cell motel I've ever stayed in—fuck you, EconoLodge. You suck at any price, but we had fun that night watching the Marx Brothers on cable and smoking in bed. Florence, OR brought us pal Fatguy, out from Corvallis, for the weekend and there were sturdy pine trees inexplicably growing out of vast sand dunes and sand surfer dudes and dune buggies and dour, grey skies languishing on long, empty beaches and Thai take-out in Cooley's Cottage. A seafood curry with mussels, shrimp, scallops, white fish and other sea creatures. Later, absinthe was sipped and a walk to the beach, an out-of-print Roger Miller songbook and Fatguy's voice from somewhere somewhere somewhere on the sofa.

Netarts, OR – an almost invisible town six miles outside of Tillamook. We did have an ocean view from the far corner of a tiny deck off the back of a trashy cottage, which neither the new bright blue carpet nor "grandma's sofa and chairs" and no amount of cleaning could have been worth the price. It was my birthday and we were disappointed, but hell, you gotta rally because here's what's in front of you. We hiked to Cape Lookout the next day, ate very overpriced and sorely mediocre food at Pirates Cove, ass deep in lilac-colored booths which would seat eight if necessary. We listened to the four guys at the table behind us talk fishing, women and business. What you paid for was the view and the waitress calling you honey. There was nothing left to do but find the local bar after sunset.

Schooner's looked closed for the lack of interior lighting but was actually open. Here was the watering hole we had been dreaming of. Cheerful Trish, our young bartender, was busy hanging Halloween decorations from the low-strung rafters above the bar when we walked in. Spider webbing and black bats flying from a wire, neither of which could be seen once she completed her task, she accomplished by walking on portions of the bar, excusing herself to scant patrons. Tacked to the rafters were dollar bills of myriad quantity and denomination, donations to build the kids a skate park, she said. We have a huge meth problem here, she said. A couple guys were sitting down-bar from us, who didn't know each other, but made topical conversation anyway. Fish and chips were recommended and ordered. Candlelight bloomed in the heavy, amber, Medieval votives hugging the circumference of the bar. A suburban couple came in and sat down lightly, looking around with their eyes only, unsure of whether or not they should stay. An old man coughed, smoked and sipped another tap beer at a booth in the side room watching the football game on a big-screen TV suspended behind the pool table. When the game was over, we nodded at him out of respect and then dropped the pool balls.

Midway through our first game, Lavelle sashayed over and put her quarters on the rail. She owned and ran the local restaurant Rachel's, named after the old woman she bought it from seven years prior. She was 5'1" with a long waist, even shorter and bigger below the belt. Her flat black dyed hair had a strange sheen to it under the lights. She was attractive, in her way; tough, loud and self-assured. She told me her story, which ended with her plan to get out of the restaurant in the next year. She was worn out, and so was her husband, who she loved. Amy and Dave put their quarters on the rail next. In no time at all, we were shooting pool with the locals, trading histories and buying rounds. Amy, 43, had six kids (her oldest, 25), one grandchild, and had been married and divorced three times. She was a shy, beautiful woman with long dark hair and a slow-sweet, girlish smile. Her boyfriend of four months, Dave, was a truck driver and predicted "The Crash" between 2008 and 2013. He was not a fan of the government and he looked you dead in the eye when he talked. He's already preparing, he said, confidently adjusting his navy blue cap further back on his head, cropped bangs visible beneath the brim. He's never been married. Everyone warned those two they shouldn't be together but they are anyway. As the night progressed, my pool playing got considerably worse. Before we left, we made a donation to the skate park, tacking our bills to the rafters with a modicum of traveler pride. Back at the sad cottage, we made a fire and dragged the mattress from the depressing bedroom through the skinny, dingy kitchen and out in front of the crackling hearth. Happy Birthday. It was a good day.

From Astoria OR, we descended from an incredible three-mile bridge where the Columbia River meets the Pacific to Washington state and proceeded up a little peninsula dotted with towns like Long Beach and Ocean Side. In Klipsan, we collapsed into an awesome beachside cottage and were happy it was raining for two days. We wrote, cooked local oysters and shrimp, slept in a soft downy bed with heavy quilts. We packed up, chatted with Denny during check out and joined long time friends who entertained us brilliantly in Seattle as we barhopped from downtown to East Lake to Capitol Hill to Upper Queen Anne with a ferry ride to an island tossed into the blur. After paying the cabbie I dropped my wallet on the seat—gonegonegone in the way things are lost. Leaving Seattle, the Cascade Mountains rose up all around, tossing us finally into vast corporate farm fields of potatoes, soybeans, corn, alfalfa and peppermint. Coeur d'Alene, ID wants me back there. I'm going. Montana – mountains and cowboys and elk replete with impressive racks strapped up to the backs of slipshod campers, glazed eyes fixed on the blacktop. Back through the dreamy hills of Wyoming to the Alamo Motel in Sheridan. Bad dinner in town but good, cheap digs made all the better by our lovely Latino host who graciously ensured we had everything we needed before we even took the key. 850 miles from there to home. Morning was brutal. The Black Hills gave way to barren dusty land. Countless crosses erect, holy and wired for communication whipped by, strung along the desolate, treeless earth. The small groupings of trees here are planted by well-meaning people and forced to try. But most of them tip over from a lack of earnestness or simply die from thirst under a relentless sun. The Badlands. Wall Drug. After awhile, I'd seen enough and sunk into a book.

Turning onto County 17 in the dark I felt as if we were just returning home from town. Twenty-one days on the road was too short, we agreed, and this is a far too shallow recounting of all we saw and heard. So much happened. The west is so big and visually overwhelming. San Francisco and Seattle have alarming numbers of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, great restaurants and much corporate big box retail crowding in. Most of the coastal communities are poor and eroding, struggling with joblessness and meth, juxtaposed unfairly against some of the richest and most beautiful landscape imaginable. People who live in these towns are doing their best to stay and make it better, or are drawn back after their initial escapes to the familiar, warm embrace of the tides and towering trees. There were many parallels drawn between our version of country living and theirs. We talked to a lot of people. It will take a long time to process all the conversations and the subtleties of arrival and departure.

The morning after returning home, I took the dogs out for a long walk. We went to the upper prairie and circled back down the steep, wooded bluff onto the forest trail. About a mile down, the dogs suddenly took off running and I happened to glance over to the lower prairie, catching sight of an eight point buck hi-tailing it through the dry grasses. Further along, we flushed out a few turkeys and arriving at the river, I stood still watching a red tail hawk circle over the pine. The river was running strong, water endlessly caressing stubborn rocks in white curls. Birds were darting in and out of the spent honeysuckle. The dead leaves of ash, poplar, oak and maple trees clapped like tiny castanets when the wind played them. I knew then that I was happy to be home. Home. But home is wherever you are, I thought.

The mailman brought a chubby envelope from the Red Lion Hotel in Seattle with a letter from Chris Esteban saying, "I found this in a cab. Hope it reaches you safely." It was intact; cash, credit cards, insurance card, license and the postcard stamps we never used. Later, I went into town to vacuum out the car. Removing the floor mats, the salt and super-fine sand was unrelentingly clinging to the fibers. No matter how many times I ran the vacuum hose over them or shook them or slapped them hard against the tires, what we carried from the western slopes on the soles of our shoes will remain.

Mental Contagion
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