A sparrow just flew through the hallway of the motel I’m staying. Around the corner there is a nest made of mud, and other such things, all gathered from what surrounds this structure. They have a distinct and majestic shape to their wingspan, as though drawn into the air by an obsessive illustrator. There is a piece of cardboard delicately waving to me as it sits amid plywood, sheets, and other pressed wood composites, I think it is an open-air storage space for the couple who run it. Last night’s rain couldn’t dampen it if it had tried, everything is preserved in the dry heat as am I.
I’ve written to you from this place before, this very chair, this very direction. I am facing South toward Mexico. The trees look hardy, the brick is painted salmon, the clouds puffy. You haven’t yet read the letter I wrote you. It was never sent. It was left behind in Vancouver, composed in Texas, transported through the air over the west side of America. Me and the letter flew over your apartment, over the hill you walked me to on one of my visits. I remember once that I’d written you a letter from a hospital lunchroom, and I remarked on the paintings hanging on the wall, then I fell asleep on a formica covered table. Dad was having fluid drained from his body.
Two days ago, I completed a portion of this journey from Vancouver, British Columbia to Van Horn, Texas. I’ve traveled back over three thousand miles. You’ve seen what pictures I’ve selected to include on social media. It felt good to share where I was, when I was, what I was, but not very much how I was. I posted to show evidence of, but there were so many reportages to include if I’d actually been able to convey the total of how I was, who I’d met, when I’d transformed. At some point, I began documenting less and less, it was about experiencing without the evidence. Evidence is necessary to prove occurrence, or so I’d thought, at least according to the law. The shadow space of interpretation is the blur of reality, the penumbra, so my friend E.W. taught me. There is nothing to prove in this moment of blur, but to let focus take its own time, a kind of interpretive trail of lines and looks. It is outside of intention, but residency is all intentional as though omnipresent in scope. It feels as I am an enclave. When I’d stop, I spoke less and less of art, and more and more of an homage. “I’m doing this for my dad,” I’d say. “I’m doing this because I felt like I had to.” “I’m doing this because life is as short as it is long.” My being an artist is a frame for a kind of experience, but is not the only frame from which to regard this residential space.
In Zion, I met L. She was waiting for her sister and her family. She and others were setting up camp in a group area in the Watchman campground at the park. I rolled up and began scoping out a tree to place my tarp and bivvy, and we began to talk. She asked me about my trip, and if I was traveling alone. I don’t tell everyone I meet the real answer to this question, but in this case I did. After about twenty minutes of chatting she told me that it was her birthday, that she’d been coming to the park for many years, and that she’d hiked every trail they had. After I stretched the tarp in its new setting, L and I sat at the picnic table and she gave me some tips about which hike was best if I was only staying the one night. I was ready to set out along with the other tourists, and take a shuttle bus up to the Narrows. The heat was pacing my ability to ride at certain times of the day, so a ride from another vehicle up the mountain seemed kind of nice. I offered that she might come along, and assured that I didn’t need to go alone, that she could head back when her family was set to arrive. Delighted by the idea, we walked along the Pa’rus trail to a different shuttle stop, as the line was an hour long. She told me about her work in the oil industry, trucks that vibrate the ground, tales of camping alone in the Utah wilderness, and hikes she’d done with her mother. L had never been married, never had kids, and did not intend to. She wore a brimmed hat, two scarves, long sleeves, long pants, and boots, her makeup just so, and had fair hair. We made it to the beginning of the trail for the Narrows, I wondered if I’d enough water, if I’d worn the right shoes, if I’d worn enough clothing, put on enough sunscreen… Looking up there were hanging ferns, and columbine flowers, the dryness had turned into delicate waterfalls, and a few squirrels crossed our path begging for tourist food. We met a mom and daughter, mirroring our own difference in ages. They had high-top water shoes, and wooden walking sticks. I asked the daughter about the trail, and she said I’d be fine in just my tennis shoes if I were careful. I hadn’t intended to walk through water, but as we were approaching my desire to do so became stronger. L was nearing her time to turn-around, and I decided to go further. We hugged, and promised to keep in touch, and thanked one another for the surprising companionship. (Thanks, L.) There were a mass of people of all ages, nationalities, heights, weights, and so on. Some were returning, some preparing to set forth, some in the midst of their steps through the Virgin River. This river cuts through the rock face, and has been doing so for more years than I could ever be able to fathom. I looked around, and shared smiles with others who were cutting through the water, my feet unsure of the rocks beneath the visible surface, I stepped deliberately and with caution, but with excitement and confidence. The day was hot, and the only consequence of falling would be for my body to become submerged in water surrounded by thousands of other people. I realized then, it was a pilgrimage. With each step, my smile enlarged, and the stress of the days previous ride began to wash away as fast as the river was moving past me.
Not two days before, I’d ridden into Cedar City, Utah, a red-rocked town where I’d almost given up. The anxiety of the wind, and heat had taken hold, and I felt sick. I threw up the morning I first attempted to leave town. It might have been brought on by altitude sickness, but it was nerves that altered me most. I’d been riding through wind, but these gusts were intended to be in the upwards of 36-40 mph in the heart of the day. It was also the morning I was to begin on an interstate, so I pulled it together as best I could. I set out, rode for twenty minutes on the I-25, and swiftly turned off of the first exit I could find. It was too much, my heart was racing, I felt unexperienced, I felt vulnerable. I wasn’t ready. When I turned off, I found a store that was run by the reservation, but appeared to be closed, maybe for a long time. There was an RV park up on the hill. I remembered the RV park and the nice people in central California, who’d taken me in when I neared heat exhaustion, inviting me to have a beer, swim, and eat oysters and ribs for dinner. They were joyful in my time of physical worry, but here, there was no one here. The wind was pushing me around like an emotional bully, and I hit my breaking point. I dismounted the bike and began to cry inside my helmet. I felt like I’d failed, as though my attempts to battle the wind could never prove triumphant. There was never going to be an agreement, never going to be a moment that the wind would let up, at least so it felt in that expansion of time. I looked at my map, called a loved one, and tried to figure out where I was. In that state of anxiety, simple navigation seemed out of reach. I sat on the concrete, and tried to breathe, drank some water, and eventually figured it out. What I had stumbled upon was an old highway, US 91. It had been constructed in 1926 and ran North/South through the country. I sighed with relief. I didn’t have to get back on the interstate to be sucked up, or blown out by some semi-truck, I could meander slowly, winding back on a highway that had had it’s hay-day in the late forties into the mid-sixties. So, I did. I rode directly back to the hotel I’d stayed the night before, checked-in again, and proceeded to process, and reticently hovered around the real anxieties that had been hiding in the pockets of this trip. It wasn’t just the wind, not just the heat, not only doing it alone, but a mass of experiences that had become stirred up, eagerly waiting to burst from my body like some comic book phoenix rising from the ashes. Only, I wasn’t ready yet to let go of that winged creature that has so mythically done well in stories up until now, not yet ready to see the renewing flames from which such a bird must emerge. A loved one talked me through, got me focused, and I began to let go.
I was walking. Walking through the Narrows, feeling the water reach my waist, absorbing the cool water that with soothing sensation suppressed the heat from my skin. It was rushing calm, a retreat from what would yet have to be done.
The next morning, I packed up and rode through a winding, and red landscape. I had breached and exited Zion in twenty-four hours, through a dark tunnel and illuminated skies I pressed on for the next challenge of facing mortality and poetry simultaneous. The morning road was kind.
J.D. I thought about your walks, and the way you pause in places that most would glide by. I have thought about your recall for words as they are associated with each image, the time we sat at Gene coffee in Vancouver, or the license plates you collect in your recognition. But, the walk I conjure most is the labyrinth, that dark place near a convenient store in Seattle. I’m glad that happened.
Until next time.
Today, I tapped the left pocket of my jean jacket. Inside was a small, blue, ceramic piece that you made, one given to me as a gift. With it, I feel protected, not necessarily from the elements, or people, but from the rise of unwanted thoughts. As I feel the contents of my pocket, a smile forms, and in that brief gesture, negativity hasn’t a chance. I have held close all the small talismans people gave to me for this trip. I have you all with me, reminding me that no matter what, I’m not alone in this world. I hold them individually in my hand, roll them with my fingers, and feel a grip on what I have to do.
These reminders seem especially important as I’ve decided to ride the Loneliest Highway, the Lincoln Highway, Highway 50.I think of the Van Buren sisters riding 100 years ago. I see infinity. I didn’t know what it looked like until yesterday. My rear view mirrors are shaped as circles, an infinite line vibrates, receding into the wavy horizon. I am looking into a mirror, I see my screen, the metal of the bike. I am a camera. The desert has been soaked in rain, and so have I. The smell of sage fills my breath, the sun comes out. I think about pulling over and walking as far as I can. Clouds move through the sky as large as mountains, a cow stands perpendicular to another cow. The other cows stare in my direction. I wonder what we would look like standing side-by side, me on my motorcycle, them on their own legs, their own skin. The leather I wear was soaked through, my hesitation to stop while riding through the mountain pass. The wind reminded me of my weight, I thought I was heavy. I think of my weight as part of the bike’s weight. We are one moving object when standing up to the wind. We tilt, we weave. To think of oneself as equal to wind is delusional. Wind beats body every time. Riding East, thirty miles left to go, the hail hits my knuckles. I am a sponge. There is no cover. The blue from my leather is running down my boots. I am a red sail, my go pro is running. I am singing to myself. All songs are about letting go, waking up, and moving on. I move on.
Eureka told me to stop. It was the second Eureka I’d stayed in. Eureka! Oh Eureka! When I rolled up to the gas pump, I left my bike for a moment and walked to the nearest hotel. My helmet came off, and I was just a body again. Eureka is an old Pony Express route town, and I thought of couriers on dusty horses. The facades feel as though I’m in a movie about the old west, and the Sundown Lodge Hotel sits across from The Owl Club. B gave me room #26. She said I’d be safe here. I went back to my bike and filled it with gas before bringing it to the hotel awning. When I pulled up, unpacked the bike, and made it to my room, the rain and hail stopped. The sun came out. I fell asleep after having a sweet conversation with a loved one.
Later that evening I ate a giant cheeseburger, the sixth one on my trip thus far, and had whisky and ginger in a glass. I met an old driller for the gold mine, a bartender who had a feather tattoo on her arm, a traveling german, photographer, and a couple with a dog headed for Utah to soak in hot springs.
Tonight, I’m sitting in Ely. I rode only 77 miles, some of it through a lightning storm. I called out, and vowed only to love from here on out. I listed all the people I have ever loved. I wished them well.
S.P., it seems like you have an empathic heart. Probably more than some of us will ever know. For the students I’ve had a chance to work with who have now read The Poetics of Space, I think you all have a special glimpse into finding the importance of place in unlikely spaces. This universe offers many houses, and at these iterative moments of sublime acknowledgment and absolute release, I come to re-understand just how these notions of home locate us even when structure is nowhere in sight. I can see you giving a knowing smile, and nodding your head.
Thanks for the blue.
This is not the first letter I’ve ever written. Funny to begin with a sentence that seems so obvious and cliche. Of course it isn’t the first letter I’ve ever written. My mind jumps to a human who hasn’t yet written a letter, or written anything at all for that matter. Do you remember the first time you wrote something? Was it a transcription, or a scribble? Perhaps that’s more a question of mark-making, not-so-much writing per se. When I think of writing…my mind drifts and I look over to my wadded up head phones breaching my keypad, my red notebook just to the right of the screen sitting un-open, they are tools, but not the venue. I checked the notebook first to see who had signed up for the first dedication letter while at the exhibition/fundraiser in Vancouver. It was you, J.M. I thought it fitting to begin with someone who I’d previously gone on a road trip with only last August, a road trip to Powell River, BC driving Old Blue, that old blue Toyota that finally stopped moving this year. We took it on one of its last adventures through the forest. Do you remember pushing it out of the mud with the rest of the wedding party? S & S married in the woods, bejewelled and veiled, exposed and proud, pioneers and inheritors, they made us all cry. Well, I always cry. I remember the golden light of the forest at dusk, reading a letter to them, knowing how brave they were, a kind of courage we should all strive for…as it seems to bring on fits of happiness, quite possibly a life well-lived. I think of them now as they both ride through birthplace, countryside, and family environments. They embrace what we all know to be true, armoured inside their tiny blue Suzuki, remembering just how much they are admired by a grander scheme of love than one handed down by prejudice and ignorance.
I’m sitting at a desk, but as you know, I’ve been sitting at the wheel, no, not a wheel, handlebars, sitting above two spoked wheels, I am no longer traveling by car across the US as I once did in my early twenties. For all the complicated reasons I’ve chosen to move back to Florida, riding my motorcycle from Vancouver to Fallon so far feels more like physics rather than theory. Judging by my maps, it appears I have many miles to go. Within moments of exhilaration for the indescribable imagery I’ve witnessed, has been fear battling it out with joy. My hand clinches down on the left handle, it aches from the grip. I accelerate, I decelerate. I curve, I go straight. I think of that book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and wished I’d finished it, but glad I know a few things about the bike. I look at the pavement moving like a river under my wheels, my feet appear to skate above the asphalt rapids. All roads are connected by the land beneath them, and I move my eyes back and forth between pavement, trucks, mountains, dirt, water, sky, and that out of focus place that has no name, that horizon of thought that grips you tighter than a hand ever could, and places you inside a vault of thought and memories unreachable by no other human being. When I realized this journey was about forgiveness, I knew it would be harder work beyond the body battle of endurance. When I feel my body stiffen, ache, and crack, I am encouraged…it means this body is becoming stronger, that it is learning and adapting from the challenge it is being put through. And, just the moment after I am in my body, aware of the wind and curves of affectation, I let go a little, my hands release their grip, my centre of gravity transitions to free-float, I am floating in the shallows of the river, letting it drift me to where it needs to go, where I need to go, picking up all the bugs and grass, the dirt and grime, I absorb. The bike and I move as mechanized hybridity over this hardened landscape of doubt. In the vestige, I am free.
Thanks for always asking good questions, J.M. I hope one day to read your writing and find out where all those inquiries lead.
To turkey, dressing, and cranberry sandwiches, and naps on the edge of the continent.
p.s. day 12 of travel back to blue